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Reading focus a huge hit at Philly school


PHILADELPHIA — The third-grade students at Samuel Powel School in West Philadelphia took their spots in a circle on the floor and eagerly opened their books, anxious to resume reading “Ballhawk,” a story about a baseball team.

Their teacher, Joe Alberti, is 6-foot-7, and even sitting down he still towered above his young charges.

“Yesterday, you had a pretty tough vocabulary word,” Alberti said, referring to “ball hawk.” “So I was hoping we could look at it and see what that word means.”

Hands shot up.

“A person that doesn’t want to share the ball,” guessed one child.

“A bird,” offered another.

“A bully,” said a third.

Terrence Brown, who has very short hair and big, dark eyes, came closest to getting it right.

“A person who always catches the ball wherever it goes,” the 8-year-old said.

Using the classroom’s Internet-connected smart board, Alberti looked up “ball hawk” and showed students the definition. Throughout the rest of the hour-long lesson, he alternated between reading to students and asking them what different words meant, what they thought would happen next in the story and how they would feel if that happened to them.

His approach works.

In his classroom, nearly all of the 22 students are reading on grade level. The feat is remarkable, given the dismal news coming out of the 167,000-student district. In Philadelphia, fewer than half of the students read on grade level by the end of third grade, which educators consider a pivotal year in making or breaking a student’s educational future.

At Powel, 96 percent of third graders read on grade level at the end of last year, one of several measures identified as critical under the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s education goals.

Powel, near the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, is one of the district’s smallest elementary schools, with 237 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Named after the city’s first mayor, Powel was opened in 1962 at the behest of parents and community members and for years was a desegregation school.

The school has met federal progress targets under the No Child Left Behind law for the last four years — another district goal.

“It’s just the special environment of Powel that encourages kids to read, to be creative, to just be interested in their education,” principal Marguerite Holliday said.

Why does Powel succeed when so many other elementary schools fail? Is the approach to education a model for the city, or is there something unique at Powel that would be hard to replicate?

The answer is both.

Powel has smaller class sizes. While Philadelphia elementary schools have a limit of 30 students in primary grades and 33 in upper grades, at Powel no class exceeds 26. The school’s administration has used federal dollars and other discretionary funds to keep classes small. Parents of children at Powel also have pressed city officials to preserve funding.

Its teaching staff is stable, cohesive and 100 percent certified. Its student body is very stable, unlike at some schools in Philadelphia, where turnover is a third or more each year.

Parental involvement is strong. Parents often reimburse teachers for supplies bought out of pocket, communicate regularly by e-mail with staff and hold staff appreciation luncheons.

In the classrooms, educators say they emphasize literacy and nurture students to care about reading early on.

“We have had a very powerful library program,” third-grade teacher Sarah Labov said. “Parents have raised money for books. And teachers read stories to kids all the way up through the grades, continuing that kind of passion.”

The school also has the benefit of drawing students from around the city. About 50 percent come from the immediate Powelton-West Philadelphia area, Holliday estimates. The percentage of students from low-income families (59 percent) is also lower than the citywide average (74 percent).

Powel conducts school-wide projects, rich in literacy and focused on a theme. For the third- and fourth-grade biography project, students research a famous person, dress up in character and make a presentation.

“In a way, it feels like a little private school in that parents are very, very active and have very high expectations of us,” said Labov, who lives a block from the school and has taught at Powel for 11 years.

Allyson Wilson agrees. She has three children at Powel and a fourth who went on to attend Masterman, one of the district’s most prestigious academic magnet schools. Holliday, the principal, estimates 40 to 60 percent of Powel students go on to magnet schools.

“I had to admit to my husband that I was wrong,” said Wilson, vice president of the home and school association and a convert to Powel. “They really care about educating the children here.”

Alberti, whose class read “Ballhawk,” is new to the school this year. He was chosen for the job by a committee of Powel educators and parents. Powel is one of 70 schools in the district where committees select all new teachers for vacancies rather than filling positions based on seniority.

His bright, colorful classroom is adorned with the work of students. Dozens of writings penned in large print on construction paper hang on clothespin lines strung across the room. “Good morning, kids of the future,” a sign beckons at the entrance.

Alberti follows the district’s core curriculum, but also adds many of his own lessons and projects. He reads with students as a class and in small groups. With slower readers, he spends more time. Advanced students read books on their own and then discuss them with him.

Out of 46 students in Alberti’s two third grade literacy classes, 14 were below grade level when they started the year. That number has been cut in half. He has told parents he expects all of them to be on grade level by the end of this year, next year at the latest. Alberti will keep the same students for fourth grade, known as looping.

“Third grade is the breaking point for many students,” he said. “This is where they’re going to drop down into the cracks … or they’re going to soar.”

Building student excitement for reading is key, said Alberti, who is in a doctoral program for reading, writing and literacy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Terrence, the child who guessed the meaning of “ball hawk,” said he enjoyed books so much that he read 10 to 12 a week at home. He is reading more than a year ahead of grade level, Alberti said.

Other students seem to be getting the message, too.

As Kasim L. Hanton Clark wrote on a paper, hanging from a clothespin: “Books are fun and hot.”

(The Philadelphia Inquirer)