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Researchers' Ambitious Pledge at a Baltimore School: 'Success for All' Students in Early Elementary

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Baltimore--At Abbottston Elementary School here one recent morning, teacher Sheila Proctor is doing her part to keep 9-year-old Sharrod Kenny from slipping through the cracks.

In their 20-minute reading tutorial, the 3rd grader flies through some of the vocabulary flash cards before him, rattling off "mother" and "because," but stumbling a bit over the pronunciation of "does."

Building a sentence around the word "grow," Sharrod composes an especially apt one: "I grow every day."

The one-to-one tutorial at Abbottston is one part--some say the most crucial part--of a comprehensive program, based at a federally sponsored research center and grounded in what its director calls "a Whitman's sampler of educational research," that is designed to ensure the early academic success of at-risk, mostly inner-city children.

Now in 15 schools in six states in various forms, the program--known as "Success for All"--aims to keep children like Sharrod from realizing the poor achievement that can foreshadow delinquency and dropping out.

Initial evaluations of the five-year pilot program suggest, to its sponsors and observers alike, that it is capable of living up to its name.

"I think that it is one of the four or five bright spots on the national scene" in terms of showing good results with at-risk students, says Henry M. Levin, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University and the director of its Center for Educational Research. ''They deserve a lot of praise for what they've accomplished."

However, Mr. Levin cautions that the program is "very expensive." And, he warns, it is still unclear whether school districts with limited resources and far from the guiding hand of the program's sponsors, Johns Hopkins University, will be able to achieve the same good results.

But Robert E. Slavin, who oversees the project at Johns Hopkins, points out that evidence from diverse schools miles from Baltimore is "very supportive" of the program's effectiveness.

Success for All was launched in 1986, when officials from the Baltimore city schools approached researchers at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students about creating a program for at-risk children in the troubled urban system.

At the time, the scientists were working on a book about such programs, "reviewing everything that had ever been done on students at risk to try and find out what was effective," explains Mr. Slavin, who is co-director of the center's elementary-school program.

Agreeing to take on the project at Abbottston, where 83 percent of the students qualify for free lunches under the federal school-meals program, the researchers made a bold promise to school officials: Every child at Abbottston would reach the 3rd grade on time and read at or near grade level.

They named the five-year pilot project after the promise they had made: "Success for All."

Keeping at the top of the list the desire to capture the enthusiasm and positive expectations of young children, the researchers wanted to shift the emphasis for education of at-risk youngsters away from remediation and toward prevention and early intervention.

Or, in the words of Mr. Slavin, "Start early and never give up."

While such concepts are not entirely new, they do reflect a growing consensus on "what works" in education for disadvantaged children.

Success for All's emphasis on the building of language skills in preschool and kindergarten, for example, is based on research that shows ''elaborated language" to be a critical prerequisite for later success, Mr. Slavin points out.

"A lot of poor kids come into school with one-word answers and limited experience expressing themselves," he says. "They've got all the intelligence. They've got all the skills. But they haven't had the chance to practice expressing those things."

Although the program's details vary somewhat at each site--because of different student needs, funding, or other requests of the participating districts--the program at Abbottston is the model, the researchers say.

While other subjects are included, reading is at the heart of the curriculum, since a school's or teacher's evaluation of a student's overall progress can pivot solely on reading performance, Mr. Slavin says.

At Abbottston, children from various home classrooms are regrouped for the reading period--90 to 105 minutes a day--moving to another classroom to work with other 1st-through-3rd-grade students who read at their level. The idea is aimed at eliminating the need for reading groups in class and increasing the amount of time for instruction. Reading classes are also smaller: 15 to 20 children, compared with a home classroom's 25 students.

Children in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st grade develop basic language skills through the technique called, or Story Telling and Retelling, in which students listen to, retell, and dramatize selections from children's literature.

Children begin to read on their own in kindergarten, and in 2nd grade they graduate to use of the district's standard basal readers.

Those who need more individual attention also receive about 20 minutes of one-to-one tutoring with certified teachers. The highest priority for such services goes to 1st graders, followed by older children.

To bolster the curricular changes, many Success for All schools also provide a range of family-support services aimed at involving parents in their children's schooling. In such cases, schools may monitor students' attendance, provide parenting education, and generally try to make parents feel welcome at school.

While not part of the tutoring program, 4th and 5th graders also use the Success for All approach and benefit from the family-support services, the researchers say.

To demonstrate that their approach can work in diverse school districts, the Johns Hopkins researchers have structured their experiment to meet a range of fiscal conditions.

The so-called "Cadillac" programs, which are in place at Abbottston and one other Baltimore school, have at least six reading tutors, a preschool, additional family-support staff members, and a full-time on-site facilitator for the program. Abbottston also has a full-day kindergarten.

The program carries a price tag of about $400,000 a year--or $749 per pupil--above the school's existing Chapter 1 funding. At Abbottston, the additional money also comes from Chapter 1 discretionary funds allocated by the city.

But as the researchers are quick to point out, even the additional costs of the program at Abbottston do not even bring per-pupil spending at the school up to the statewide average.

The other Success for All programs--known as "Chevys" or "Yugos"--have fewer tutors, may not have a preschool or kindergarten, have no additional family-support staff members, and have only a half-time facilitator. These lower-cost options exceed the Chapter 1 allocation by about $40,000 to $150,000.

So far, the researchers say, the results of the Success for All program, especially at Abbottston, have been dramatic.

A full evaluation of the program in seven sites--five in Baltimore, including Abbottston, one in Philadelphia, and one in rural Berlin, Md.--shows that it has contributed to substantial gains in student achievement. Moreover, Mr. Slavin notes, the earlier students start in the program, the more impressive the gains.

Among those who finished 3rd grade last year at Abbottston, the evaluation shows, even those who started the experiment in the class's bottom quarter were reading only about three months behind grade level.

By contrast, students at a similar school nearby that was not participating in the program who started out in the lowest 25 percent of the class were a year and a half behind their peers at the end of 3rd grade.

Also, at Abbottston, no child was two years behind at the end of 3rd grade, while 10 percent of the students at the control school were.

Success for All has also paid off in ways not measured on standardized tests, says Mary Donnelly, who is a 17-year veteran of the school and now the program's facilitator.

"Referrals [for behavior] to the office during reading time are practically non-existent because the children really do enjoy reading," she says.

At the same time, she notes, parental involvement has markedly improved, and pupil attendance is at near-perfect levels.

Even the schools that do not go with the Cadillac approach can see achievement gains, Mr. Slavin says.

But, he acknowledges, while retention rates plummet to virtually zero and special-education referrals shrink substantially in the full-scale program, such improvements have not been felt in the less-complete programs.

"What the Cadillacs get that the Chevys don't is the idea that you're going to do whatever it takes to see that every single kid succeeds," Mr. Slavin says.

Nevertheless, he points out, the program has demonstrated that an audacious idea--ensuring academic success for all children in a school others might have written off--can work.

"People who see the urban school as a total disaster and as some sort of pit of perdition--it's just not our experience," Mr. Slavin says. "You can do a great deal."

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