An early-literacy initiative in Montgomery County, Md., has won
praise from a team of independent researchers not only for its role in
helping improve basic reading skills among some poor children, but also
for officials' candor in the apparent failure of the efforts so far to
bring English-language learners up to proficiency.
The 139,000-student district phased in the initiative for some students in kindergarten and 1st grade beginning in the 2000-01 school year. Under a new curriculum that emphasizes reading and mathematics, schools have bolstered instruction in phonics and language skills, increased professional development for teachers, added assessments of student progress, and encouraged parent involvement.
The district then tapped youngsters considered at risk of reading failure—those from low-income backgrounds or with limited English skills—for extra attention. The program provided full-day kindergarten and reduced class sizes in 34 of the suburban district's 125 elementary schools, selected because of their large populations of needy or language-minority children.
The district collected two years of data on all students in kindergarten and 1st grade, some 16,000, and analyzed such skills as the ability to identify letters, speak appropriately for their age level, and recognize words and sounds.
Over the course of the study, the proportion of English-speaking students who qualified for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program and demonstrated proficiency in basic skills rose from 52 percent to 64 percent. Just 44 percent of English-language learners reached the same benchmark, down from 45 percent the first year.
Pupils in full-day kindergarten showed greater progress than those in a half-day program.
Evaluators from the Yale Child Study Center praised the district's approach as "cutting edge." The center conducted an independent analysis of the data on student performance over the two-year period.
"They are not looking for a silver bullet or the magic pill that will change everything," said Michael Ben-Avie, a researcher at the Yale center. "But they're bringing in all the necessary components to do it right."
Superintendent Jerry D. Weast called for an expansion of the all-day kindergarten, which will become a state requirement in 2007.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo [email protected]
Vol. 22, Issue 8, Page 6Published in Print: October 23, 2002, as Early Years