S.D. Schools Scrap Pilot Reading Program : Education: An effort to improve the reading ability of low-achieving seventh-graders fell short. So a new reading curriculum, for kindergarten through eighth-grade, will take its place.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An experimental program to boost the reading ability of low-achieving seventh-graders was killed Tuesday by San Diego city schools trustees after district administrators said the results did not justify continued expenditures.

Board members lauded the district's admission that the 3-year-old program, a pilot in four schools, was not showing enough improvement in student reading skills.

"This is a cornerstone," said board Vice President Jim Roache to the nod of colleague Shirley Weber next to him. "In the past, once a program was implemented, it took on a life of its own, whether it was accomplishing something or not."

But the pleasure at seeing administrators admit shortcomings in a program was tempered by the lack of clear alternatives or ideas about how to address the continuing problem in city schools of stagnant or declining reading achievement, especially among black and Latino students.

"I am baffled at our struggle to teach reading when there are (private) programs out there that teach people to read, and they don't take 12 years to do so," Weber said. "I feel frustrated because I see those programs working."

School Supt. Tom Payzant said new methods and curriculum for teaching reading, to begin in all district elementary and middle schools next fall, could offer another way to address the reading achievement gaps, although supplementary aid for smaller class sizes for some students would still be needed.

The experimental program discontinued Tuesday involved a required one-semester reading class for seventh-grade students who were at or below fifth-grade reading levels. District officials believe that students who fail to read adequately by the time they enter junior high face serious risks of dropping so far behind in their work that they will drop out before completing secondary studies.

Teachers at the four schools selected--Bell, Correia, Standley and Wilson junior highs--used a variety of strategies and materials, from reading texts to newspaper articles and from reading aloud to student storytelling, as a way to develop oral and comprehension skills.

School district evaluators gave the pilot high marks during its first two years, concluding last year that students showed significant gains after the semester classes and urging that teaching methods and materials be disseminated widely to colleagues throughout the district.

But, in the report presented Tuesday, administrators said the picture was much more mixed than they thought last year. Although students continued to show reading gains, the improvements were not significantly greater than those of students not receiving special attention, smaller classes and additional material.

"A definite need for reading instruction at seventh grade has been established, but the present program is not accomplishing the improvement in student reading skills," the report concluded. "Even though two out of three years showed some student growth . . . students were still not achieving at an acceptable level."

Payzant said Tuesday that the mixed picture led him to recommend an end to the program, in large part because the district is centering much of its resources on the new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade reading curriculum for next year.

Under the new program, the district will teach reading, writing and comprehension as a unified whole and through the use of literature, rather than using special reading books and breaking down the reading process into phonics, grammar and other parts. The philosophy stems from a new state Department of Education curriculum framework based on new research on how children learn.

"I know that teachers and students in the reading pilot felt good about it, but we've had a lot of programs where people felt good but student (test results) were modest," Payzant said.

Nevertheless, some board members cautioned that the new unified reading curriculum will not address student deficiencies by itself, especially since classes average more than 30 students, limiting the attention that students with special needs can receive.

Trustee Kay Davis said elementary teachers should be used at the junior- or senior-high level to teach students reading skills that should have been learned in primary grades.

"Joe Tafoya, principal of Kearny High, has taken his own site money to hire an elementary teacher to help students who need to read at grade level," Davis said. Colleague Ann Armstrong said the example shows that the district must somehow concentrate efforts at the lower elementary grades.

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