On Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., teachers getting ready to head home from Fallstaff Middle School in Northwest Baltimore have been peering into a classroom and been intrigued by the sight: Five middle-school principals and eight assistant principals dutifully sitting at desks as students once again, learning the latest about developments in reading instruction.
Teaching the class, Leadership for the School Reading Program: The Reading Process and Acquisition Through Content, is Mary-Ellen Lewis, director of the Center for Reading Excellence in the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. Her pupils are longtime veterans of the Baltimore City School System: Principals Almenta G. Bell, Southeast Middle School; Esther M. Oliver, Chinquapin Middle School; Shirley A. Cathorne, Thurgood Marshall Middle School #171; Pamela Moore, Fallstaff Middle School; and Karl E. Perry, Calverton Middle School. They are joined in the class by their assistant principals.
All are “among the most dedicated and future-thinking administrators” in the city’s schools, Lewis says. “When this [course on reading instruction] was mentioned as a possibility, these principals jumped on it.”
Each of the schools headed by these principals is identified as eligible for “reconstitution” by the state, meaning student achievement scores are low and in need of marked improvement. The principals are determined to achieve those goals--and are forcefully demonstrating that commitment by being the first to respond enthusiastically to Lewis’ innovative course.
“These principals are models of professionalism,” Lewis says. “They are adding to their own training in order to benefit their schools, teachers, students and communities.”
The course is designed to familiarize secondary school administrators and supervisors with current theory and practice related to the acquisition of reading skills, and how to integrate that knowledge into good administrative practice in the observation and feedback process in secondary school leadership and into content curriculum applications of reading and language skills.
From January to April, the course has been offered in weekly two-hour classes, some of which have had an electronic format, with assignments done over the Internet or through other electronic means. It is being offered through the Middle School Reading Assistance Project of the Center for Reading Excellence, a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education for middle schools identified as having the greatest need for improvement in reading. The principals’ tuition has been paid in part by the grant, with the rest covered under the district reimbursement policies. Starting next fall, it will be offered as a regular course.
Taking a rare midday break, the principals recently gathered on the Homewood campus to have a sit-down lunch and discuss why they have gone back to school to learn about teaching students to read.
“In order to lead, you must know,” says Almenta Bell. “You need to know what you’re looking for [in improved reading instruction], what needs to be done. If you have a clear understanding, you can get it done. Number one: You have to be able to diagnose the reading problems.”
“We have to be the model for our teachers, as well as for our children,” says Karl Perry, whose school has some 11,000 students. “We can’t just say Œthis is what is required.’ We have many provisional teachers who are not yet certified, and you literally have to teach the teachers. And many principals do not come with a reading background.”
“We have to mold these individuals,” Shirley Cathorne says. “Teaching is a skill--and a calling. Everybody is not a born reading teacher. You can’t know how to [teach reading] until you know what a good reading program is. I’m in this course to determine what is the best reading course for the teachers to use.”
As Esther Oliver explains, “Putting in place the right reading program for the children you serve” is one of the great challenges facing principals.
“No one reads to these children at home. They’re baby-sat by the one-eyed monster,” Cathorne says referring to television. “We know that the struggling reader is the one who isn’t getting those sustaining factors at home. We have to provide them.”
Pamela Moore , in whose school the class gathers, says she and her fellow principals-turned-students are “the trend-setters in middle schools because the role of the principal has changed so much. There used to be a time when teachers all came from the same background, but not now,” she says. “We have to help the new teachers understand that reading impacts everything.”
Adds Cathorne, “Whatever we do is contagious. If we’re enthusiastic about this, our staff is enthusiastic.”
Lewis says that the influence the principals have could extend beyond their own schools. “I think there’s a place for these principals to be mentors to other principals because they have credibility. They’re implementing their insights under the most difficult circumstances.”
Pamela Moore says she sees the opportunity to enhance her own knowledge of reading instruction as being key to the improvements--however gradual--in her school’s test results. “Are they hitting their target? No. But they’re going in the right direction.”
Lewis says that based upon the lessons she and the Center for Reading Excellence are learning from the development of the reading course for middle-school principals, SPSBE will offer a similar course for elementary school principals once a year.