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Focus on reading skills shifts

Soon struggling readers in grades 6 to 9 will have to take a remedial course. But first the teachers have to be trained.

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

The statistics tell the story: One in four Pasco County middle school students can't read well enough to pass the state's FCAT exam, a requirement for graduation.

In raw numbers, it means roughly 3,000 students are in danger of being stuck in school -- or worse, pushed toward dropping out.

For years, teaching children how to read has been the duty of elementary school teachers. But now, facing a potential logjam of nongraduates, the Pasco County School District wants to train teachers in middle school, and some high schools, how to teach that most important skill.

The training is the first step in a bigger district initiative to require all struggling readers in grades 6 through 9 to take a yearlong remedial reading course, beginning as a pilot project next year.

The goal is to take the students back to elementary school and reteach the basics that they missed along the way.

"If they don't get these reading skills, they'll never pass the FCAT," said Ruth Reilly, the district's director of curriculum. "The middle and high schools need more intensive reading instruction, and we want to have highly qualified people teaching it."

And in another first for the district, middle schools will soon get their own version of a reading textbook similar to those found in elementary schools.

It may seem odd to noneducators, but middle and high school language arts teachers don't often know much about how to teach reading. It's simply assumed that kids of that age already know how to read, so their teachers' backgrounds tend to lean heavily toward literature and its applications, not the skill of reading itself.

District officials estimate that perhaps 15 to 20 percent of middle school students will need to take the new yearlong classes. Students will qualify for the program through a combination of test scores, classroom work and teacher observations. The district does not yet have a price tag for the new program.

Most middle schools already have some sort of remedial reading class, but the programs vary from school to school and teacher to teacher. This is the first districtwide effort to create a cohesive remedial reading program in the county's 10 middle schools.

But the need for the new remedial program raises the question: How is it that so many kids get to middle school if they can't read?

There's no easy way to answer that, educators say.

Some families have long histories of reading problems, and scientists have recently found that children can inherit their parents' troubles with the written word. Some kids struggle because of inadequate instruction in elementary school. Others get the basics, but they don't practice enough to gain proficiency. Most often, though, it's a combination of factors.

For years, Winnie Corkhill was the reading specialist at Hudson Middle School. The students she worked with most often had two common traits: a lack of the basics and nobody at home watching over their progress.

"Most of them didn't know phonics, and they weren't being encouraged to read at home," said Corkhill, who is now an assistant principal at Chasco Middle.

An important element in getting young teens to improve their reading skills is to first hook them up with books that are not only interesting to them but are written simply enough so that the kids won't get frustrated and quit.

"I ask them all the time: "How are you going to get better if you never practice? " Corkhill said. "You have to get them books that will bring them success, yet they can't be baby books because they'll be too embarrassed to read them."

The new remedial classes will be run on a small scale next school year as the district works to train teachers and get the program running smoothly. By the 2003-04 school year, as many as one student in five could be enrolled in the class.

"It's going to take us a while to get this going," said assistant superintendent Sandy Ramos.

The middle school push isn't going to occur in isolation. The district also has turned up the heat on its elementary schools. The district will soon be updating its elementary reading textbooks to include a new series that should work better for struggling readers. The district is also trying to pool several pots of federal and state money to train elementary teachers on new reading research and its classroom implications.

Some of those district efforts are getting help from the state, which is trying to develop statewide reading standards that reflect new research on how children should be taught to read.

The state is also trying to determine which early intervention strategies work best for students who read below grade level. It's also trying to beef up teacher training programs so that more teachers know how to teach reading.

Even with all these efforts under way, school officials still temper their expectations by saying cracking reading problems is one of the most difficult challenges teachers face.

"This is going to take several years to implement," Reilly said about the district's push at the middle schools. "You can't just take a struggling reader in ninth-grade and expect one course to solve the problem."

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