Literacy program works, district told

P. Ross Berry Middle School should be ready by fall 2006, an official said.
YOUNGSTOWN -- A key to improving literacy and writing skills among pupils in the city school district is continuing and building on the practice of small reading groups.
That was the message Gail Saunders-Smith delivered to board members at their meeting Thursday. Saunders-Smith, an author and self-employed staff developer from Gustavus in northern Trumbull County, said she has seen improvements in reading proficiency in the district partly because of pupils' being broken into smaller reading groups instead of the traditional approach of providing reading instruction to the entire class. Such a setup benefits pupils and teachers, she said.
Saunders-Smith, who has worked for the city schools for five years, noted that forming reading groups with five or six children leads to greater intimacy by tapping into what the kids already know while building on that knowledge. The concept also allows teachers to better target what each child needs next, increasing the likelihood that weaknesses and problem areas will be identified sooner and offering necessary intervention, she explained.
"Reading is like breathing: If you are unable to breathe, nothing else matters. If you can't read, nothing else matters," she said.
Saunders-Smith said small-group reading helps teachers "be more scientific" in selecting texts and other reading material appropriate to a given group, while the information they glean from each group helps them design more effective lesson plans.
Proactive prompting
The success of small-group reading is also influenced by what teachers say to their pupils, Saunders-Smith said. It's important when working with the kids, she noted, to use positive statements, various proactive prompts to reinforce open-ended questions that guide their thoughts.
She said the method equips kids with better critical-thinking skills, which makes them more conversational and willing to read.
Reading assessments are done in the district three times a year, helping them determine where intervention may be needed, she explained.
"[Small-group reading] is more work for teachers," but schools have seen better results, Saunders-Smith said, adding that she wants to see more reading and writing incorporated in the arts, math, science and other areas.
Construction report
In other business, Steven Ludwinski, project manager for Heery International Inc. of Cleveland, said the foundation for the new P. Ross Berry Middle School has been completed and that work on the school will begin this spring. The school, which will be adjacent to North Elementary School on Youngstown's East Side, should be ready by fall 2006.
Asbestos abatement work at Chaney High School also is slated to begin soon, Ludwinski said. The removal of asbestos will be a first step toward preparing the school for various renovations and additions, he said.