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Literacy Initiative Crucial For Hartford Students

Rick Green

July 07, 2009

Three years ago I wrote about the Hartford school with a lone third-grader reaching the state goal for reading, a heartbreaking image of failure.

Things aren't much better. But a promising program working in five city schools the Hartford Haskins Literacy Initiative shows there may still be some hope.

For decades, city children, most of whom arrive in school with poor language skills and years behind their suburban counterparts, haven't learned to read very well.

That's why the news from Haskins, a private research institute in New Haven, is so encouraging. Haskins, which emphasizes phonics and understanding the sounds that make up words, offers a possible strategy to help children catch up. This effort isn't about blaming teachers it's about training them so they understand how to better teach a child to read.

After three years of work in five Hartford schools, Haskins students are showing significant gains. According to a new analysis of the first two years' data, children in kindergarten, first grade and second grade outperform their peers, both in the state and nationally:

>> Kindergarten students reading proficiency test scores rose from below average to above average.

>> Second-graders were 33 percent more likely to reach proficiency than those not participating in the Haskins project.

>> Students who are taught a phonics-based curriculum showed significant gains in reading comprehension, demonstrating a critical link between reading and understanding text.

Still, the overall picture remains grim.

Most third-graders in Hartford can't read anywhere close to the level they should be.

While half of Hartford third-graders are mired at the below-basic level, in Glastonbury the number is about 7 percent.

Experts say this means that unless these Hartford children quickly make dramatic gains, they will never read very well. With our future workforce coming from Connecticut cities, you don't need an economist to tell you what this means.

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski told me he wants to create a "lab school" where the Haskins philosophy can be taught to teachers throughout the district.

Teaching a child to read " is rocket science,'' Adamowski said. "It's not something you can expect a 21-year-old right out of college to be able to do. It's very clear what you need to know. You have to have a strong phonics base.

You have to have a strong vocabulary base.''

Critical to all this is frequent assessment so teachers understand what a child is and isn't learning.

"We have to help teachers understand what materials work and what materials don't work.

We have to teach the administrators about data and how to be collaborative,'' Haskins' Margie Gillis told me. "The only way you are going to get traction is if you collect data and you know what to do with it."

"If you can't read, you can't do math or chemistry. We have to be better at taking the research seriously and putting our money into long-lasting movements or efforts that are going to change things."

For the last three years, the Hartford Foundation has funded much of the Haskins project, contributing almost $1 million, but that grant has run out. Next year, Adamowski will use federal stimulus money as the Hartford Foundation considers what to continue funding.

"We are examining various options,'' said Christopher H. Hall, the foundation's vice president for planning and strategy. "The results are very promising. It is a very important success story for Hartford."

Adamowski, his teachers and the folks at the Hartford Foundation get it. More children are making progress learning to read. Nothing in education matters more.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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