Six-year-old Brandon Beale of Dale City is getting the academic equivalent of intensive care.
For half an hour each weekday morning, he and a specially trained reading teacher huddle over story books, talk and write sentences together as part of a costly and increasingly popular new program called Reading Recovery.
Brandon, who began Reading Recovery in February after he had fallen far behind his classmates, almost certainly would have repeated first grade next year, according to his reading teacher, Joyce Morsberger. Now, she said, he is reading almost on the level of an average first-grader and probably will go on to second grade in the fall.
Designed as a literacy life raft for first-graders in danger of failing, Reading Recovery, which was developed more than a decade ago in New Zealand, is underway in Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties, and soon will be the subject of a pilot program sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education.
Reading Recovery, which costs on average about $2,000 a child -- or about half the annual per pupil cost of public education in Virginia -- matches a teacher with a struggling first-grader, who gets individual tutoring daily until the child can read on grade level. That can take anywhere from six weeks to several months.
Program research shows about 83 percent of children achieving at the bottom of their first-grade classrooms can advance to an average level and remain there for at least three years, even after they are no longer receiving specialized help.
The price tag is high because teachers must enter a year-long training program, after which each can work with only four or five children at a time.
"In the long run, if you take one child and keep him out of the dropout realm, it's a very small investment," said Hilda Edwards, who oversees Reading Recovery for the Department of Education in Ohio, where state money helps fund the program for about 4,000 first-graders this year.
"It's cheap when you think about it," said Callie Shingleton, Virginia associate superintendent for instruction, who is helping organize efforts to start a state-sponsored training program for Virginia teachers. "This is a better way to do things than retention . . . . It's also a way of redirecting emphasis away from remediation and into prevention."
Shingleton and others who have often been frustrated by the failure of other solutions to the problems of at-risk youngsters, say the one-on-one approach, although expensive, may be the only one that works.
Next year, with $54,000 in state and private foundation money, the Virginia Department of Education will bring a specialist from Ohio to Richmond every two weeks to train teachers from six school divisions. They will then work with students in their localities and share with teachers in other districts some of what they have learned.
Fairfax County has been using Reading Recovery since 1986, and now has 64 trained teachers who together have already completed work with 130 first-graders this year.
"One of the big attractions is the speed of the program," said Nancy deCou Johnson, supervisor of Reading Recovery in Fairfax. "Once in it, the children accelerate themselves . . . . They're doing well.
On a recent morning at Neabsco Elementary School in Prince William, Brandon read a story called "Just for You," picking up on polysyllabic words such as "slippery" that would have confused him a few months ago. When Brandon was stumped and said "want" for "wait," Morsberger patiently helped him work out the sounds. Then he wrote a sentence about going to the beach, and Morsberger cut out the words so he could reconstruct his sentence like a linear puzzle. The session concluded with Brandon reading "The Three Little Pigs," a story he said he'd never heard before.
Although educators give Reading Recovery high marks for effectiveness, its high cost is a stumbling block for many school districts, and some question whether children can sustain the gains they make early on through the middle and high school grades.
Not everyone is ready to invest in the program.
"One of the questions you have to ask yourself is do I have the resources to devote to that program, and if I do, what do I give up in order to do that," said Marsha York, who supervises programs for problem readers in Montgomery County.
Instead, according to York, many Montgomery County reading teachers are using some of the techniques developed by Reading Recovery rather than adopting the program wholesale.
In Ohio, some of the largest urban school districts have shied away from the program because of cost, according to Edwards.
Reading Recovery uses none of the so-called basal readers, which depend heavily on phonetic sounds and repetition. Instead, children use a succession of ordinary story books, heavily illustrated and available in any bookstore. They are rated in difficulty from one to 20.
"These books are chosen because they match how a child talks," said Morsberger. "They're not like 'Run Run Run. See Spot Run.' No one talks like that."
One of the small problems with Reading Recovery, Johnson said, is graduates sometimes balk once they return to using basal readers in the classroom.
"They're used to reading meaningful texts. They like to read. They like books," and find the basal readers boring, Johnson said. But the children also have a tremendous sense of accomplishment and faith in their own abilities, she and other proponents said.
"The benefits are hard to calculate," said Pat Fege, who coordinates Fairfax's federal Chapter I program, which pays for a large part of Reading Recovery.
"It's more than the child's ability to read at a certain point in time. It's the child's image of himself as a learner," Fege said.