Ivy Leaf preschool nurtures reading

DON'T give Liller Green any of this nonsense about the dangers of starting kids too soon. Fifty years ago, in a little school in Georgia, Mrs. Green started reading before she got to first grade, and that's the way she runs the Ivy Leaf School, here in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. ``It's just not true,'' she says of the dangers of early reading. ``It all depends on how you do it.'' At Ivy Leaf, they start the children in a ``warm, supportive atmosphere that permits them to move at their own pace,'' Green says. Which is, of course, what they all say. But Ivy Leaf does seem a little different.

Green and her husband, William, started Ivy Leaf 20 years ago, when they couldn't find a quality nursery school for their daughter. At the end of the first year, parents implored them to add a first grade, and after that a second, and so on up. What began as a nursery and kindergarten for 17 children now has over 750 students in preschool through eighth grade, making it one of the largest independent black private schools in the country.

The plaster is bare in places. There is no gym, no cafeteria, and some of the classrooms are so small that the students sit at little carrels built along the wall. But there is a spirit about the school that somehow diminishes these limitations. All the teachers are black, as are all the students. Posters of prominent black Americans -- Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and others -- decorate hallways and classrooms.

On the second floor of a converted woodframe dwelling, one of four classroom buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the preschoolers have a domain of their own. They spend most of the day in crafts, storytelling, and play, but they also have three half-hour sessions of structured learning. Two years and nine months may seem rather young to be coping with the alphabet. But the teacher is motherly and patient, and the exercises -- such as alphabet bingo -- are not overwhelming.

Ninety-nine percent of the children take to the program, Green says. By age five they are using first- and even second-grade readers, handling words like ``quail'' without missing a beat. In her office, Green proudly displays standardized test scores that put 92 percent of her students at or above the national norm.

With tuition at only $160 a month, this is a school that bus drivers and mechanics can afford. Parents raised the money to buy a room full of personal computers; recently they raised $45,000 in two weeks by selling $1 candy bars.

Officials at other private schools in the area aren't totally enthusiastic about the Ivy Leaf program. One said they find transfer students have been regimented and aren't used to thinking independently. But there is admiration for what Ivy Leaf has accomplished. ``They obviously do a good job with many kids,'' said this official.

So much of the atmosphere at Ivy Leaf seems to come from the home-spun practicality and caring of Mrs. Green herself. ``Before society has told the child that he can't,'' she says, ``we have demonstrated to the child that he can.''

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