'A Tale of Two Schools' probes difficulties of teaching youngsters to read

"W'e can't create miracles. We need some help here!" This plaintive cry of an inner-city Texas reading teacher goes a long way toward summing up the message of "A Tale of Two Schools," a PBS documentary about the task of teaching children to read.

The job is hard enough in an affluent area where parents reinforce lessons at home, materials arrive on time, and teachers receive the training they need. But in the two low-income communities profiled in this hour-long show, helping a child succeed can sometimes feel like the loneliest job in the world.

The good news, however, this documentary implies, is that with help, success is possible. Narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, "A Tale of Two Schools" picks up at the start of the school year, focusing on two classrooms. One is a first-grade class at Walton Elementary, a Fort Worth, Texas, school long considered one of the worst in the state but now in the middle of a turnaround.

The other school is a second-grade class at Bearden Elementary, a school struggling to educate some of the nation's poorest children, in Sumner, Miss.

While the documentary breaks no new ground in examining the challenges of turning low-income children into fluent readers, it does put a human face on the situation.

The show's directors choose to focus on one child in each class. At Walton the cameras zoom in on Tavares, a likable and irrepressible boy who is already beginning life with several strikes against him. His face is scarred from an accident, his mother has left the family, and he missed most of kindergarten.

The most heartwarming sequences in this show tell the story of modest gains for Tavares, and an unqualified victory for his school. It's almost impossible to remain dry-eyed during the scene when the principal congratulates each teacher in an auditorium full of cheering children.

At Bearden, success is harder won. The school received a $200,000 grant to bolster reading instruction, but materials and teacher training arrive too late in the year to have the impact they should. The focus is on Kathleena, a girl seen watching TV most nights in her trailer-park home, and also on her teacher, Jill Todd. Mrs. Todd is earnest and caring but new to the classroom and clearly at sea.

The dynamic superintendent of schools at Bearden cares passionately for these children and pours himself into his work, to the point that his health and marriage suffer.

Some viewers may quarrel with this documentary's assumption that a highly structured reading program with an emphasis on phonics is the definitive answer to reading problems.

Nonetheless, one of the best things about this show is its refusal to point fingers or pretend the parents are not trying - even when they fail.

"A Tale of Two Schools" simultaneously demystifies and humanizes the teaching of reading. And at the same time it stirs viewers to marvel that effective help has been so long in coming to students like Tavares and Kathleena.

'A Tale of Two Schools' airs on many PBS stations in September and October. Visit www.readingrockets.org for dates and times.

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