The Education Review: The Washington Post Magazine on back-to-school for young and old

A Boost Up

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By Jay Mathews
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Johnny was a dark-haired little boy with a lively sense of humor when he joined Kathleen Cohan's kindergarten class at Beall Elementary in Rockville last year. His parents did not speak much English at home, but then 10 of Cohan's 14 students were from families that were from another country or poor or both. American public school classrooms, even in affluent Montgomery County, are often like that, and Cohan loves the new rhythms and colors that the students' varying backgrounds add to her day.

What concerned her about Johnny, however, was that he seemed unable to understand or respond to simple questions, and he had trouble remembering the names of letters he had just learned.

Children struggling with English were not new to Cohan. Schools are deluged every fall with students whose low-income or foreign-born parents do not speak with or read to them enough, even in their native tongue. This has produced an unnerving language gap, with some 5-year-old children of affluent parents entering school knowing 13,000 English words and some children from poor or immigrant families knowing as few as 500. When Cohan began teaching 29 years ago, educators would try to correct these deficiencies, but if they failed they would accept this as the result of poverty and other factors beyond their control.

That still happens in many schools, including in upper-income districts that focus on the middle-class children whose parents pay most of the taxes. But many Montgomery County residents pride themselves not only on their financial success, but also on their social consciousness. Thus, the county was unusually receptive when Jerry D. Weast, one of the most ambitious and aggressive school administrators in the country, became school superintendent in 1999 and declared he was going to do something for kids like Johnny.

Weast and a very active school board, with the blessing of the County Council, have spent $21.1 million so far on their Early Success Performance Plan. They have reduced class sizes for the youngest students. Cohan had 14 students last year and has 13 this year. For the first time this fall, kindergartners in all 123 Montgomery primary schools go to school the entire 6 1/2-hour day, compared with no all-day kindergartens when Weast arrived. And children like Johnny, with special problems, are being treated as if their parents were K Street lawyers, not poorly educated immigrants or high school dropouts.

Within two months of Johnny's arrival, the school organized a strategy session with only one topic on the agenda: how to help Johnny. There were eight people there: Cohan, the principal; a speech pathologist; a special education specialist; a pupil personnel worker (a combined social worker and truant officer); Johnny's parents; and an interpreter.

They shared ideas. They worked out a plan. They marked their calendars for the next meeting -- there would be four strategy sessions for Operation Johnny that school year. Cohan placed the boy near her so she could make sure he finished the activities and games she had for him. She had made videos of some of her lessons to help Johnny's parents, and the parents of other struggling students, try them at home.

Other students receive similar treatment if they, like Johnny, are severely behind or disabled.

The school system set an unusually high standard for professional development, and has expanded its teacher training with more emphasis on reading instruction, according to Gene Maeroff, author of Building Blocks: Making Children Successful in the Early Years of School. Many educators are uncomfortable with the idea of pushing kindergartners to read. But Janine Bacquie, who directs early childhood programs and services for Montgomery, said that in the 16 years since she first taught students like Johnny, the research has made clear that the number of 5-year-olds who are ready for words, holding books tightly in their sticky hands, is much larger than anyone thought.

In 2001, 39 percent of Montgomery kindergartners passed a grade-level language arts test. Nearly all of the students who passed the test had middle-class parents who had been plying them with letters and words since birth. In 2005, 81 percent of kindergartners passed. A big part of the reason: The percentage of low-income kindergartners reaching grade level soared from 44 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2005. The effort has long-term effects, with the 2001 class that passed the kindergarten test at a 39 percent rate passing the fourth-grade test at an 86 percent rate.

The effort is expensive, but, unlike some other costly educational projects, it seems to work. Johnny is in first grade at Beall, having a wonderful time, and his teacher reports he is reading even better than he did when Cohan waved him goodbye last spring and got ready for another class full of Johnnies.

Jay Mathews covers schools for The Post. He can be reached at mathewsj@washpost.com.


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