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Teens Get a Second Chance at Literacy

Education: L.A. Unified begins a back-to-basics reading program for secondary students. The effort is being watched by districts nationwide.

July 21, 2002|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Unified School District is embarking this month on a remedial reading program for 35,000 middle school and high school students who lack skills they should have learned by second or third grade.

Educators across the country say the initiative is unusual for its focus on teenagers instead of elementary students, and for the sheer number of youngsters involved. Its success or failure, they add, could set the agenda for other big city school systems.

At all 123 secondary campuses in the Los Angeles district, the worst readers in sixth through ninth grades are forgoing electives such as music and art to attend mandatory classes as much as two hours a day that stress the phonics usually taught to 6-year-olds.

English teachers--some reluctantly, others enthusiastically--are shelving classics such as "Romeo and Juliet" for rudimentary storybooks with big pictures, large print and sentences as simple as "Dad had a sad lad." As the students master such materials in what is called the "Language!" program, their lessons grow more difficult.

Los Angeles Unified leaders say the back-to-basics intervention--which will cost $16 million this year--is necessary because tens of thousands of students drop out or graduate without the skills to succeed in college or get good jobs.

Many students, at least during its early phases, say they dislike the program and are embarrassed to be in the classes, which they think of as special education.

"People think you're dumb. It's little kids' stuff," Delfina Terrazas, a ninth-grader at Jefferson High School, said after she practiced the alphabet on flash cards.

When 13-year-old Damian Polk was asked to sound out "cat, hat and bat" during the first week of classes at John Muir Middle School, the eighth-grader blurted out: "Are we retarded?"

"Of course you're not retarded," the teacher, Susan Glazebrook assured Damian and his classmates. But she told them that they needed help: They had landed in the class because of their low reading scores on the Stanford 9 exam.

The nation's secondary schools are filled with struggling readers like those in Glazebrook's class. These students' academic problems often have been overlooked as attention and money focused in recent years on reforms at the elementary level, experts say.

Teenage illiteracy is now attracting broader attention. The Bush administration will convene a meeting of researchers and teachers this fall to examine the best ways of improving reading beyond the fourth grade. The gathering, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, is expected to examine the Los Angeles program.

"We're going to look at this closely," Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Susan B. Neuman said. "I am very enthusiastic about any kind of intervention that squarely takes on this huge problem."

Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals, agreed. "What Los Angeles is doing is light years ahead of what most districts are doing," he said. "I give them huge kudos."

The magnitude of adolescent illiteracy in Los Angeles was demonstrated earlier this year when the district tried to establish qualifications for enrollment in the new classes. District officials targeted the 67,000 students entering sixth through ninth grades who scored in or below the 20th percentile in reading on the Stanford 9--those in the bottom fifth.

About half that number were taken off the list, either because they had passed a separate third-grade reading test or because they were still learning English and qualified for another intervention program. That left the 35,000 who will spend the next two years learning how to read all over again.

The phonetic exercises that start this month with the most basic lessons linking sounds and letters will gradually take on more complex and challenging material as students tackle grammar, learn to write essays and study methods to improve their comprehension.

Los Angeles Unified is using state and federal money for teachers, their training and new books. Those funds could have gone to other programs, but the remedial classes are a priority for district Supt. Roy Romer.

"We have to force something to happen for these low-performing youngsters," he said. "I'm sick at heart that we have kids in secondary schools who carry around books they can't read."

The intervention comes at an urgent moment for many students.

Starting with this year's 11th-graders, high school students in California must pass a rigorous "exit exam" to earn diplomas. Los Angeles Unified students performed dismally on a trial run last year: Just 44% of ninth-graders who voluntarily took the test passed the language arts section. Statewide, 64% of ninth-graders passed.

District officials say they expect slow but steady progress in the remedial classes, which have as few as 20 students, compared with 35 or more in other English classes. The lessons also are twice as long as those for other classes.

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