CHICAGO — How do you improve academic performance in a high school in one of America's toughest neighborhoods, where fewer than 4 percent of incoming students have grade-level skills?
Three years ago, DuSable High School principal Charles Mingo identified a starting point: teach the students to read.
Never mind the fact, says Mr. Mingo, that basic reading isn't usually taught in high school. "We were receiving kids well below grade level," he says. "We couldn't afford not to teach them to read."
It's a rare step in the national effort to ensure that all high-school graduates can read more than the credits in a movie. Teaching such skills is a natural fit in the elementary grades. Older students, however, may find it difficult and embarrassing to get up to speed. Appropriate texts are scarce, and teachers aren't always trained in effective techniques.
But DuSable's program addresses an urgent need. More than 40 million US adults - many of whom have made their
way through high school - struggle to understand schedules and basic forms. And each year, US businesses lose about $60 billion in productivity because of employees' weak basic skills, according to the National Institute for Literacy.
At DuSable, located across the street from the city's notorious Robert Taylor public-housing project, where 80 percent of the students live, every teacher has become a reading teacher. Each of the 1,200 students begins the day with a 44-minute reading class. Freshmen and sophomores have additional training, and reading skills are a part of every academic class. The school day has been lengthened to meet the new demands.
In addition, DuSable is launching an ambitious recreational reading program, as part of an effort to create what Mingo calls "a culture of reading" in the school.
The results? Last year, 10 percent of freshmen tested were working at grade level, versus almost 4 percent the year before, and 16 percent of juniors were at their grade level, compared with only 7 percent last year.
"That's not anywhere near where we want to be, but we're doing better now than we have in years," says associate principal Katherine Smith. The goal this year is to see 20 percent of the school's students working at grade level. (Twenty-five percent would take the school off academic probation).
But higher test scores are not the only sign of progress. "Kids come to class with books," says Steven Strull, a history and social studies teacher. "I didn't use to see that. And their preparedness is better."
Like all the school's teachers, Mr. Strull teaches a basic reading class. In addition, he assigns novels in other classes. In "Law and American Society," for instance, he requires students to read Mario Puzo's "The Godfather." Some teens tell him it's the first book they have ever finished.
But novels alone are not sufficient to teach skills. One major stumbling block to setting up the program has been the lack of materials. But Mildred Smith, a reading specialist who was hired last October, finally found textbooks by McCall Crabb and Jamestown Press. The books include short selections to be read for speed and accuracy, and focus on basic skills such as making inferences, drawing conclusions, and identifying main ideas.
Mrs. Smith is "our Michael Jordan," says John Reid, the assistant principal. "She's the reason this is working."
The need for more programs is clear, says Smith, an energetic woman who left a corporate job to "make a difference." "Every day I get a call from a school that wants to know what we're doing."
Perhaps the biggest surprise for many at DuSable has been the degree to which the kids like the program. School librarian Della Sanford offers audio tapes of favorite books. She has held a library-card drive, stocked the library with Afrocentric books and other titles she thinks will appeal, and organized reading contests.
Perhaps the biggest hit so far was a field trip to a downtown bookstore funded by J. C. Penney, which also supplied $20 vouchers that allowed each student to purchase any books they chose.
"Going downtown on the bus the kids were off the wall," says one teacher. "Coming back you could have heard a pin drop. They were all reading."
Susan Wills, a special-education teacher, has organized her 10th-grade reading class into teams that compete.
"The stories are interesting," says Tamika Ellis, a member of Team One. "I feel like I'm reading much faster and I understand more," says Tierra Washington, her teammate. "We're the best team," boast the girls, bringing howls of dissent from Team Two.
Yet the challenge remains enormous. In Paul Whitsett's 90-minute sophomore reading class, students seem willing to read and discuss a short selection about a Japanese soldier who hid for 27 years after World War II. But Mr. Whitsett points out that there should be about 30 kids in class - not the 12 who turn up. "It's hard to teach this way," he says.
Some skeptics of DuSable's progress point out that a new policy on promotion means that the weakest eighth-graders didn't make it into last year's ninth-grade class. Supporters counter that the policy wouldn't account for the strong improvement in test scores by 11th-graders.
Many kids, meanwhile, like the program. Tenth-grader Kareem Lewis says it has made a difference. "I was always a good student," he says. But since focusing on reading he's seen his grades climb and his speed increase. "I turn my work in," he says with a big smile, "and my teachers say, 'Are you done already?'"
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