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Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as State Grants Seed Reading Programs in Conn.

State Grants Seed Reading Programs in Conn.

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This year, teachers in Middletown, Conn., are learning how to improve their students' literacy skills at a new district training center.

Meanwhile, in Bridgeport, 10 schools are each getting an extra teacher trained in First Steps, a popular strategy for reading instruction. And more than 600 elementary school pupils in New Haven are attending Saturday classes on reading and writing--an innovation that's coming to Waterbury next month.

Myriad reading-improvement efforts are blossoming in Connecticut's city schools, a year after the state seeded them with a new grants program. Vowing to be remembered as "the reading governor," John G. Rowland, the state's Republican chief executive, called for setting aside $10 million a year to help students deemed most at risk bring their literacy skills up to par early in their educational careers. Before passing the measure, the legislature nearly doubled that investment to $19.5 million for the current fiscal year.

Leaping at a chance offered by the targeted funds, urban districts in the Constitution State have begun or expanded programs that offer more professional development to teachers and more instructional time to students. If successful, the state hopes those efforts will tackle one of the most vexing challenges for schools in Connecticut: the persistent performance gap between rich and poor districts.

"This gives us the resources we need at the right level," said Jim Betz, who directs state and federal grant programs for the 22,000-student Bridgeport schools. "If we can address this at the primary grades, we're going to solve the literacy problem."

Learning Disparities

Among the wealthiest states in the country, Connecticut benefits from a nationally recognized student-assessment system and rigorous teaching standards. But its urban schools contend with some of the nation's most entrenched pockets of poverty.

So while 68 percent of the state's 4th graders scored at least at the "basic" level on the reading section of the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 45 percent of its urban students met that mark. Somewhat more encouraging, results from the state's own reading assessment released last week showed the percentage of 6th graders in the state's most urban districts who met the state's goal for literacy rose from 23 in the last school year to 26 this school year. But that's still less than half the statewide percentage of children who met that goal.

Over the long run, the disparities have helped prompt a continuing desegregation lawsuit and a series of legal challenges over school funding. ("Connecticut Lawsuits Revisit Familiar Debates," Sept. 23, 1998.)

Against that backdrop, Mr. Rowland announced a major initiative aimed at early reading intervention last year. The result was the Early Reading Success Grant Program for the state's 14 poorest school systems.

To receive funding, each district was required to draft a three-year plan for improving reading from kindergarten through grade 3. Though the money also can be used more generally to lower class sizes in the early grades and to expand all-day kindergarten, at least half has to go toward "intensive reading intervention."

A status report presented to the state school board last week points out the need for continued aid so that more schools can hire additional reading teachers and expand after-school and summer programs. The state government, which runs on a biennial budget, already has allotted a $500,000 increase over the current funding to $20 million for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

Saturday Academies

The grant program earns high marks from many urban administrators, who say that when money isn't targeted for special purposes, its impact often gets diluted. "Most of the dollars we fight for are general education dollars, and we spend them however we can," said Reginald R. Mayo, the superintendent of the 20,000-student New Haven system.

The bulk of New Haven's $2.5 million grant went toward the new Saturday Academy the district launched in December. Although none are required to do so, some 600 children in grades 2-4 now attend the extra day of classes, which is geared toward the state's assessments and focuses on reading, writing, and mathematics. "We decided it's time to stop, take a break, and give them the time they're going to need," Mr. Mayo explained.

Many of those students, the district expects, will continue on into the system's summer school programs, which have been honed to focus more on literacy. Although state law doesn't allow schools to mandate attendance at such extra sessions, New Haven will start wielding a powerful new incentive this year. Any student who hasn't mastered the basics by the end of the 3rd grade will be strongly encouraged to attend the summer program as a last-ditch effort to gain the needed skills before being retained a grade.

The 15,000-student Waterbury district will similarly cajole about 600 students in grades K-3 to attend its new Saturday Academy focused on literacy, which kicks off next month. A $2 million Early Reading Success grant let the district hire the 60 educators needed to keep the program's pupil-teacher ratio down to 10-to-1. There, too, the Saturday classes will flow into summer school for students still unable to read at grade level. Without the summer sessions, school officials fear students might lose whatever gains they make during the year.

"For the most part, from July to August they're not involved in learning, so there's no continuity," said Paul V. Sequeira, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "So why not keep them in school?"

Time for Teachers

Bridgeport is using part of its $3 million grant to train 10 elementary school teachers in the First Steps program, which was developed in Australia. Each is being assigned to one school to help teachers of grades K-3 work the approach into their instruction.

"We often train teachers and ask them to implement [a new approach] the next day, and it doesn't happen," Mr. Betz said. "These [newly trained educators] will actually work with teachers in the classroom until they are very comfortable with these strategies."

Although the grants have taken vastly different forms in the districts, state officials say the program has focused Connecticut's urban schools on a single important goal.

"People could look at this and say, 'It's basic stuff and should be going on all the time,' " said Anne Druzolowski, who manages the program for the state education department. "And the fact is that it was being done in some of the districts, but in dribs and drabs. This brings an importance in each of the districts to reading."

Ms. Druzolowski expects the state's commitment to continue. "This is such a hot topic, and it is truly needed," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 12,16

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