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Activists press schools to use reading program

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


TAMPA -- They carried posters, wore ribbons and spoke bluntly about the need to expand a controversial reading program for poor children.

About 100 members of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, known as HOPE, vented their growing frustration to School Board members Tuesday.

They said the district, having spent only $200,000 of the $920,000 set aside by the Legislature last year to place the program in D and F schools, has done little to encourage the reading method known as direct instruction. "What I don't understand is why we in Hillsborough County are dragging our feet in implementing this program," said Loretta Rogers, who has nieces in the public schools. "We know this program works. Let us try the program."

After Rogers spoke, the audience erupted in applause. Children waved signs saying: "Direct Instruction Works" and "The Reading Gap Widens."

"The children of Hillsborough County need a chance to succeed," Sami Al Arian told the board.

Direct instruction is a phonics-based method of reading in which students are taught to sound out letters to identify unfamiliar words. Developed in the 1960s by an Oregon professor, direct instruction uses a certain set of cues and scripts for teachers and students.

Some studies have shown direct instruction to be effective in teaching poor children to read when other methods have failed.

Joyce Haines, the district's director of elementary education, said the method was used unsuccessfully at Sulphur Springs Elementary School several years ago. It was eventually phased out there after the school's test scores dropped.

Districtwide, schools use a variety of methods to teach children to read, including phonics and others that stress literacy and writing.

"There isn't any one best way to teach children to read," Haines said.

Each school can choose its own methods, said district spokesman Mark Hart.

But the district has not encouraged schools to use the direct instruction method as it should, said the Rev. W.F. Leonard, president of HOPE.

Seven classrooms at Oak Park and Egypt Lake elementary schools began using the method in the fall. The schools were among the 13 elementary schools to earn D's on the state's accountability report.

But HOPE members said in one Oak Park kindergarten classroom, 88 percent of the students were reading at a first- or second-grade level within five months. However, Haines said the district is studying the method at the two schools and has yet to determine its success there.

School Board member Glenn Barrington said the district needs to try the direct instruction method.

"It's ready aim, aim, aim and we never fire," he said. "We'll never know if we've hit the target if we don't pull the trigger."

Superintendent Earl Lennard, urged by board member Doris Ross Reddick to respond to the criticism, gave the method a lukewarm endorsement, calling it a "viable means to teach reading. We will not overlook any method to teach reading," he said.

HOPE members said they will wait to see if more schools buy into the method.

"We know direct instruction works if teachers are given the opportunity," HOPE member Sharon Streater said. "We're not trying to force it down their throats. We're just tired of failure."

- Melanie Ave covers education and can be reached at (813)226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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