READING PLAN TO GET UNDER WAY.
In response to plummeting reading test scores and public outrage, the Los Angeles County Office of Education will launch a new reading program today that targets more than a half-million students, teachers and administrators in the county's public schools.
The goal of the five-year plan, ``Reading: Basic to Success,'' is, in fact, basic: to have every child who enters fourth grade in 2001 able to read at that grade level.
``Test scores were falling. It became a public issue. Something had to be done,'' said Celia Ayala, creator of the program and director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the county's Office of Education.
The problem, Ayala said, is that many schools have never had a comprehensive reading program.
``There haven't been many requirements. Schools could just say, `This is my program' - and that was that,'' said Ayala.
Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Donald W. Ingwerson will introduce the program today at a meeting of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley with state and local education leaders in the Los Angeles Central Library.
``By bringing together all partners,'' Ingwerson said, ``we can collectively work to improve reading achievement in Los Angeles County.''
County officials contend that the reading plan was developed in collaboration with educators, parent groups and business leaders. But some education leaders within the Los Angeles Unified School District say they were left out of the process.
Among those who say they were not consulted are Rachel Shavick and the rest of the 31st District Parent Teacher Student Association. The organization has 44,000 members in the San Fernando Valley.
``It's very short-sighted,'' said Shavick, spokeswoman for the group. ``They just don't seem to get it. Our input is very valuable.''
Also skipped over were leaders from the district's largest reform program, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, said Mike Roos, LEARN's president and chief executive officer.
``When you're the largest reform effort going on in the city, it would seem that some contact with us would have been appropriate,'' Roos said.
Roos said he backs the goal of improving reading with more resources.
``It's smart money,'' he said. ``Study after study shows that learning reading skills early leads to academic success through life.''
The $2.5 million plan will help elementary schools formulate programs that meet new state and federal goals to improve literacy, with the county offering training and support to principals, teachers and parents.
Back-to-basics phonics, grammar and spelling will be key components of a child's reading education. But schools still will include some of the previously favored literature-based instruction, Ayala said.
The program also will provide lectures for 2,400 parents on how to tutor children in reading at home. Principals, board members and reading specialists will be able to attend sessions on how to improve reading in their districts, and eight reading resource teachers will be available to visit school sites and offer tips and support.
Amy McKenna, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Los Angeles Unified School District, acknowledged that past reading programs have been inadequate.
``Reading programs were governed by the textbook the school chose. Training was given by publishers of a text,'' McKenna said. ``This initiative forces us to look critically at what it means to develop a literate person.''
Shavick, spokeswoman for the 31st District PTSA, said there's a lot of frustration among the parents in the Valley over the school district's failure to help Johnny read.
``Kids aren't learning to read. They're not prepared to go out into the workplace. If they can't make changes, more and more parents are going to go to private schools,'' Shavick said.
In 1992 California ranked 40th of 43 states in its students' reading scores on the National Assessment Educational Progress test, according to county education officials. When the test was given again in 1994, California placed 40th of 41 states in which students took the test.
In 1995, a state task force called for widespread changes in instruction and urged that reading be given the highest priority and more resources in California schools. That same year the Legislature required the state Board of Education to ensure that instructional materials stress phonics, spelling and basic computation. Gov. Pete Wilson then allocated $200 million this year for back-to-basics textbooks, teacher training and testing.
And for the first time, the state Legislature has mandated that the state Board of Education set down exactly what students should be learning in all subjects at each grade level.
``We've never had a set of legal standards for education,'' said Dan Edwards, spokesman for the governor's Office of Child Development and Education.
Although state money is starting to flow into school district's for reading instruction, the LAUSD - the largest school district in the state and the second-largest in the nation - is still unable to set up enough workshops to train all its teachers.
``That's why the county's initiative is so important. We need all the help we can get,'' McKenna said.
By August 1997, the state will require districts to offer reading training to 90 percent of its kindergarten through third-grade teachers.
McKenna said the training is especially crucial now, when districts are hiring thousands of new teachers - many without credentials yet - to staff the additional classes created through the state's program to reduce the number of students per teacher in primary grades.
``We have to have experienced teachers in the primary classrooms who know how to teach kids how to read,'' McKenna said. ``We don't have that in some cases. Hopefully, this training will have an impact.''
Ayala agrees: ``Unless teachers understand the reading process, they can't teach it.''
Ayala hopes that 30 percent of the county's districts will have a reading plan by June. But she admits that turning around students' poor reading scores won't be easy.
``Change is hard. It takes time,'' she said.