A governor fits in time for phonics

Every Friday, Bob Taft leaves his offices in Columbus's gleaming downtown and drives three miles to an inner-city school on the wrong side of prosperity.

There, in the tidy brick building surrounded by run-down homes, he tutors reading. A good-hearted executive? Not exactly. Mr. Taft is Ohio's new governor.

By making a personal commitment to teach the ABCs to a disadvantaged child, he's hoping to persuade 20,000 Ohioans to do the same. Literacy is not the hot-button issue it was a few years ago when high-profile people, such as Barbara Bush, made it a national priority. When President Clinton tried to push through a $2.8 billion literacy initiative two years ago, Congress didn't pass it.

By putting reading at the top of his personal agenda, Taft hopes to reignite that interest. "This is an issue that affects us all," he says. "It's going to affect our state and how we do. Are we going to have a skilled work force with the

In Ohio, children get tutoring from the top ability to learn or not?"

"Reading is the key to success," he adds. "To learn math, to learn history, to learn skills for the workplace, to be a good citizen, you have to learn to read."

Teaching Brien to read

That is why every week since taking office in January, Taft has made the short drive to the Kent Elementary School to tutor a third-grader known only as Brien (to protect his privacy).

The meetings are low-key and out of the glare of the media. Even residents next door to the school don't report seeing the governor come or go.

Literacy "is an issue that's not on a lot of people's agenda," says Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University here. But "the notion of thousands of volunteers [teaching reading] is a very popular idea."

Last week, the two read a book about an elephant. They did some writing and worked on pronunciation.

"I'm helping him try to sound out the words that he's having trouble with," Taft says. "He's a fairly good student, [but] he needs some phonics work, vocabulary work."

The pressure to perform is huge - especially for the governor, who acquired his passion for teaching while serving in the Peace Corps during the 1960s. "Every night I pray that Brien will pass the fourth-grade proficiency test," he quipped during a recent speech in Dayton. "If he doesn't, I'm in big trouble."

Facing high rate of failure

He is only half joking. The fourth-grade test is fast becoming a key plank in Ohio's education-building plans.

Dubbed the "Fourth-Grade Guarantee," it requires all school districts to assess students' reading skills at the end of the first, second, and third grades. If they're below average, the district offers remedial classes.

Starting with the 2001-02 school year, fourth-graders who fail their test won't be promoted to fifth grade.

If the situation doesn't improve, thousands of children could be held back. Last year, just over half of Ohio fourth-graders failed the test.

Literacy problems stretch far beyond Ohio and its children.

According to the best estimates, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 adults functions at the lowest level of literacy. Most of them can read a little. They can sign their names and find the expiration date on their driver's licenses. But they can't fill out the application for a Social Security card or find an intersection on a street map.

Researchers say such poor reading skills cost the United States billions of dollars in low productivity, poor-quality work, mistakes, absenteeism, and lost management time.

To help Ohio schoolchildren succeed, Taft has made literacy a top issue. Last fall, during his campaign, he called on 10,000 Ohioans to volunteer to teach children to read. Once in office, he doubled the goal to 20,000. His initiative, a $30 million program called OhioReads, passed the state House unanimously and became the first bill Taft signed as governor.

The bulk of the program's money goes to schools, particularly those with high numbers of below-average readers, to help set up literacy programs. Another $5 million will be available to community groups that want to start literacy tutoring.

Corporate help in Columbus

Columbus is already moving forward with its own public-school literacy program. And it's getting help from The Limited, a national clothing retailer based here. The company has set aside $250,000 to help 400 of its employees tutor 200 kindergartners at three area elementary schools.

Some legislators - in fact many experts - criticize such volunteer initiatives because tutors need training and support to teach reading well, especially to children. Mr. Clinton's America Reads, which called for 1 million volunteers and 30,000 reading specialists nationwide, drew similar criticism and was not enacted by Congress.

Still, Taft defends the program as a start. Coming from a long political tradition - his great-grandfather was President William Howard Taft - Taft got hooked on education during his Peace Corps years in Tanzania. He taught seventh- and eighth-graders English, geography, math, and art, and coached girls' basketball.

"It was rewarding work," he recalls, and it foreshadowed his current challenge. "The students had to pass an exam to get into high school, and the exam was in English."

Taft's passion for learning

Since then, Taft has never lost his zeal for education. Professors at the University of Cincinnati law school, for example, remember him as a diligent student. "There was absolutely no question that Bob Taft was trying to achieve the full benefit of his education," says Glen Weissenberger, who recalls frequent office visits during a legal drafting class in which Taft worked to understand every nuance of the wording.

During his years in the state House of Representatives, as the unsuccessful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 1986, and more recently as Ohio's secretary of state, Taft has visited hundreds of schools and worked on numerous education issues and policies. So when he signed the OhioReads program into law earlier this year, it came as no surprise that he held the ceremony at an elementary school.

"Education is the area in which I'm most interested and concerned about - and one of the big reasons I ran for governor in the first place," he says. And tutoring Brien? "It's one of the most enjoyable parts of my week."

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