Banneker Junior High School, standing in that eastern portion of Montgomery County where suburbs fade gently into farmland, distinguished itself last fall by scoring in the top 10 among the county's junior highs on the Maryland State Functional Reading Test. Banneker is distinguished in another way: it is one of the 10 junior highs with the largest populations of black students and the only one with a top reading score.
One thing the county has yet to do, however, is list the number of minority students who failed the test in each school. Oscar L. Walden, seventh-grade counselor at Banneker, has done this himself.
In years past, Walden kept a list of Banneker students who did not pass. Beside the name of most of them, he made a mark in red. Like Walden, most of the students who failed the functional reading test are black.
"Questions come into my mind," said Walden. "Questions about 'Why?'"
Often in schools where blacks are in the minority, they become the majority of those who fail, or score lowest, on reading tests. In all, 26 percent of the county's black seventh-graders failed the functional reading test last fall.
School officials see this as a result of social and economic influences in the county. Black community leaders, however, have publicly chastised the school board for not guaranteeing "equal educational outcomes" for minority students.
Low reading scores by minority students are not new in Montgomery County. The administration has seen the same numbers, with slow improvement, for several years. Still, investigation reveals that the schools, despite calls for "back to the basics" instruction, lack a comprehensive reading program to balance vast differences in reading abilities within the county.
Instead, the county has relied on federal funds to aid overburdened teaching staffs. Where federal assistance is not available, county support of reading instruction has been paltry at best, forcing some schools to rely on teachers trained in acute learning disabilities, rather than those specializing in reading.
In some elementary and secondary schools where substandard reading has consistently been a problem, county support has been practically nonexistent. Principals are allowed to fend for themselves as best they can, the more vocal of them receiving what little support is available.
In many schools, support for reading programs is provided by parent volunteers, some of whom give hundreds of hours of service a year because no other help is forthcoming.
Says Johnie E. Harris, the school system's coordinator of reading: "We (the county) have nothing that can be described as a remedial reading program."
Harris said he would like to see a "totally coordinated reading program that is organized from grade to grade. That way, there is less of a possibility of kids falling through the cracks and we could monitor their progress."
Race does not account entirely for differences in reading abilities in Montgomery County, where some schools place in the 94th percentile nationally and others in the 44th. Even at some schools where the number of minority students is relatively small, scores continue to hover around the national average of 50 or 52.
Last spring, 9 percent, or 619, of the county's 7,217 third-graders failed to reach the minimum standard in reading comprehension on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. At some schools in low-and middle-income areas, fifth-graders read at the second-grade level. There, substandard reading is an increasing problem because of minority and low-income populations far greater, and faster growing, than anywhere else in the county.
At Brookview Elementary in Silver Spring, for instance, low reading scores appear to be fueling fears of white flight from the school. "People are pulling out of the school because the school board will not make us a magnet school to help disperse our large minority population," said Sue Gettman, Brookview's PTA president.
Brookview's minority ratios approach 75 percent in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, when students switch from neighboring New Hampshire Estates, one of the areas in the county most heavily populated by blacks.
"If you have a class of 25 children and 18 of them are performing below grade level, how much can the teacher do?" lamented Gettman. "How much time can she devote to them?"
Most school principals and PTA parents interviewed, however, said they receive all the help they expect from the county. The administration has put more than 80 reading specialists into its 124 elementary schools (10 positions transferred from secondary schools). Nearly 30 schools receive federal support from the county's $2 million Title I program.
But some administrators, though confident they are helping bring students up to grade level, believe the county is too dependent on federal money. If the county should lose its Title I funding -- and federal cuts coupled with pay raises portend a possible staffing decrease of 15 percent in the 1981 budget -- reading programs, they say, would collapse.
At least two schools consistently among the lowest scoring in the county, Weller Road and Rocking Horse Road, have received far fewer teaching assistants than those available to other schools that score similarly but qualify for Title I aid. Some principals and reading specialists think that at schools such as these, administrators rely too much for reading instruction on teachers under Continuum Education, programs designed for handicapped or potentially disabled students.
These SLD (Students with Learning Disabilities) instructors and diagnostic/prescriptive specialists (also known as "resource teachers") are trained to teach students with emotional and physical handicaps in a variety of subjects. Though administrators insist Continuum Education instructors do not have the training of reading specialists, for many principals they are the backbone of local remedial reading programs.
"Diagnostic/prescriptive teachers are not reading experts," said Harris. "Their purpose was conceived as being a little different."
Most principals maintain they would never classify a poor reader who was not handicapped as "Code 09" in order to place him in an SLD class for the learning disabled. But others concede that the line between a "slow reader" and a "handicapped" student can become uncomfortably thin when the school's reading specialist is overburdened.
"As a professional, that's a very difficult decision to make, to classify a student that way," said the principal of one Title I elementary school. "But you put them where the resources are."
"I've heard that too," said Harris. "I'm not sure how much of that is taking place. That's certainly not the way it's supposed to be done."
In recent years, teaching in Montgomery County has become less that of a general practitioner and increasingly the kind of specialization plied in sophisticated medicine. Kindergarteners are beseiged by teachers, learning specialists and administrators searching for hints of poor reading skills.
Like a group of physicians preparing to operate, they consider opinions in both diagnosis and cure and write precise prescriptions.
Programs are designed for non-English speaking students, for those with specific learning handicaps and for those who otherwise lack the experience and skills necessary to read well.
All this is but the bare bones of the county's assault on poor reading. The flesh and blood of most schools that score lowest is Title I and the dozens of trained assistants the federally funded program makes available for classroom help.
In several schools, Title I has apparently succeded. Each year, says assistant director Lorraine Zeigler, many students show more than a year of progress. Some Title I schools are ahead academically of schools that don't qualify for federal funds.
The allocation of Title I funds, however, is based on the number of students there who are on free or reduced lunch. Low scoring schools without large numbers of impoverished students must go to the county for support.
Weller Road, with 565 students one of the largest elementary schools in the county, has one reading teacher and half an aid position in remedial reading. Rocking Horse Road, a school of 392, has a half-time position in remedial reading and one-and-a-half aides. Title I schools with similar scores, and even fewer students, have as many as five, eight, 10 or more than a dozen teaching assistants in reading and math.
Weller Road and Rocking Horse Road are both feeder schools to Belt Junior High. Twenty percent of Belt's seventh-graders failed the state functional reading test last fall, the poorest showing in the county.
"There's no question that we need more resources," said Walter White, Rocking Horse Road's principal. "We simply don't have them."
Though many state and federal standards exist for reading programs, the county does not mandate methods for teaching reading. Elementary schools, in the name of "local autonomy," are free to develop their own programs.
Many principals approach remedial reading with the unswerving zeal of a General Patton. Others side with one reading teacher at a non-Title I school who said: "Somebody's got to be at the bottom of the bell curve."
Approaches to remedial reading vary from school to school. Programs that apparently work at some are not tried, or fail, at others. A few schools, for instance, have integrated reading specialists into the classroom routine. Some reading teachers who would like to do the same say they are unable to overcome teacher objections.
Similarly, some principals have made terms of reading teachers and diagnostic/prescriptive teachers. At other schools, personal and philosophical differences prevent such initiatives.
"Each area office," said Harris, "has two reading and language arts specialists. They have a hell of a job because not all of us feel we need help. I'm convinced that it has to do with the quality of leadership in the school and the commitment of the teaching staff. Those are powerful kinds of influences."
Several schools, such as Weller Road, Brookview and Burtonsville, have introduced "basal" reading systems, texts for all grades from the same publisher. In some areas, such as Takoma Park, clustered elementary schools have started integrating teaching methods to avoid the confusion students encounter when schools close. Others have begun efforts, similar to those of Title I, to help parents teach their children.
At many schools, slow readers spend at least an hour in the reading laboratory with the reading specialist. Weller Road has formed a two-hour morning first-grade class composed of poor readers and disabled students.
School administrators are confident such efforts will show positive results.
They also know, however, that some of their students will continue to enter junior high to find they cannot read well enough when reading counts most, and when resources to help them become more scarce.
"You've got to get them now," said Thomas Poore, principal at Brookview, "or you've lost the whole ball game."