recent article in the Wall Street Journal turned a harsh spotlight on a troubling situation on the local public school scene: Few minority and lower-income students at Menlo-Atherton High School are enrolled in "advanced placement" classes -- courses for high-achievers that can help pave a student's path to a distinguished university.
While the article, which caused a major stir in the high school community, included indisputable facts about the student makeup of the advanced classes, it gave short shrift to an important element of the story. That is: Many minority students and children from poor families come to M-A High from financially strapped, sometimes under-performing, elementary and middle schools.
Underachieving students in the Redwood City and Ravenswood school districts often do not receive the extra attention -- help from reading specialists, for example -- that is typically available to children in wealthier school districts such as Las Lomitas and Menlo Park City. They generally are taught in larger classes, where children who need extra attention fall farther and farther behind, often not adequately learning basic skills such as reading.
By the time these children reach high school, the door to classes that can lead to higher opportunity is already closed.
While private-sector programs that focus on putting computers and Internet access in the classrooms of poor schools have garnered a lot of attention recently, some educators and community members say the real problem is not being addressed by the high-tech effort.
"What good is the Internet if you can't read?" says Mary Shaw, who has worked tirelessly over the years to open doors for educationally disadvantaged kids. "The key is reading -- all else flows from that."
Offering the key
That statement could serve as the motto for the effort Ms. Shaw and a battalion of other volunteers have launched at Belle Haven School in Menlo Park. Their program, YES Reading, offers one-on-one tutoring during and after school to children with the poorest reading skills in the K-8 school, part of the low-wealth, low-performance Ravenswood district.
Using an intensive phonics-based tutoring method, the YES Reading program is a welcome supplement to classroom instruction at a school where a number of children speak a primary language other than English. Although it was begun only last fall, YES Reading is being hailed by teachers, administrators and parents as a bright ray of hope for the future of kids who were falling -- hard -- between the cracks.
"It has made a dramatic difference" for children in her class, says fifth-grade teacher Terri Ferraguto, who sends five of her students to half-hour sessions twice a week.
One boy who began class last fall reading at kindergarten level is now reading at third-grade level after two or three months of tutoring, she notes. Just as important, she adds, is how "the one-on-one attention has made such a big difference in his behavior in the classroom."
Walter Speed, also a fifth-grade teacher, says that behavioral problems often spring from poor reading and comprehension skills. "Kids feel frustrated, left out" when they can't keep up with other students, he explains. And with 28 kids in his class, "I can't give them the one-on-one attention they need."
Mr. Speed also referred to a student who has been transformed by the tutoring program. The child "couldn't even sit still for two seconds before," he says. "He was always disrupting class, he couldn't read or do the things other kids could do."
Now, Mr. Speed says, the boy is not only reading, but enjoying it.
The tutoring program is now conducted in the Belle Haven Community Library, which serves both the school and the community. But that will change soon. Stanford University recently donated a double-size portable classroom that was moved, courtesy of Vance Brown construction company, to the Belle Haven campus, and is now being renovated by the University Rotary Club of Palo Alto.
YES Reading is the latest transformation of a tutoring effort Ms. Shaw began years ago for at-risk students at Costano elementary school in East Palo Alto. She later moved the program to an after-school project at the nonprofit Pacific Islander Outreach group.
Last year, Ms. Shaw, a Palo Alto resident, approached YES (Youth Empowering Systems), a national nonprofit group that works on youth and education issues, to sponsor the tutoring program. A YES board member, Emily Garfield of Menlo Park, had worked with Ms. Shaw when the tutoring program was at Costano School.
YES said yes, and the tutoring program was finally able to operate independently from a school bureaucracy or another organization that had a strong voice in how the program would be run.
YES Reading is a pioneer project for its sponsoring agency. Ms. Garfield said that it is the first and only program under YES sponsorship that deals with the problem of kids who can't read.
Calling the tutoring program "an outstanding model," Ms. Garfield says she hopes other such programs are developed. "If youngsters can't read, it's a disaster for them -- and not just academically," she says. "It washes over into just about everything."
The program has received a grant from the Peninsula Community Foundation, and organizers are hoping for more such funding. Ms. Shaw said her real hope is to find a corporate sponsor.
More tutors needed
While funding is important, the heart of the program is the volunteers -- and more are needed, Ms. Shaw says.
The tutoring is two-tiered. On Mondays and Thursdays, adult tutors work with kids from 1 to 3 p.m. After school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, high school students from Palo Alto High School, and one from Castelleja, volunteer as tutors.
Ms. Shaw wants to expand the high school tutoring portion, and plans to pitch her program to M-A High. The principal there, Eric Hartwig, says he is receptive to the idea of his school becoming involved. "I'd be very enthusiastic," he says, adding that the older students would benefit as much as the younger.
He also is enthusiastic about the tutoring itself. "The earlier you can get kids on to good academic habits and high aspirations, the better the payoff is."
Noting that disadvantaged kids require "additional efforts as early as possible," he adds, "The true key to enhancing access to the high-level courses in high school is to have students as fully prepared as possible when they enter the high school."
Ms. Shaw says that adult tutors are also badly needed, even though there is a core of highly committed volunteers now. The problem, she notes, is that the demand is so high. With 140 students referred to the program by teachers, the tutors can handle only 70 to 80 at this point.
Molly McCrory, who with Ms. Shaw and Jean Bacigalupi helps coordinate the volunteer effort, says one visit to a tutoring session should be enough to convince others to sign up. "With one of our children for a half-hour, they'd be hooked," she says. "It is a way to take a child, and change the life of a child."
Ms. Bacigalupi, who has volunteered her time and effort to many causes in her life, recalls how she became involved as a tutor. "At one point, I told Mary, 'I'm tired of sitting on boards -- I want to work with kids.'"
She says the work is greatly satisfying, and she takes additional pleasure in sending a child who is mastering reading skills home with books so they can read to their younger siblings.
All tutors are trained to use the method developed by Dolores Hiskes, whose book, "Phonics Pathways," is used in the program.
The method includes games such as Bingo to help children learn the alphabet and sounds. And Bingo is big with the kids.
In fact, the program appears to have won over kids who initially had to be dragged kicking to the library. "At the beginning, the kids were terrified," recalls Ms. McCrory. "Some had tears in their eyes, and jackets over their heads."
Now, Ms. Shaw says, "it's really hard to get some of these kids to leave when the session is over."
Fifth-grader Jonathan Angulo, smiling over a book he is mastering, says he likes his tutors and the fact that his skills are growing. "I used to read slowly," he explains, adding enthusiastically, "Now I read way more."
Ms. Shaw says the program enriches the lives of everyone involved. "I walk in now and kids throw their arms around me," she says, beaming.
And Belle Haven Vice Principal Cammie Harris, who notes "tremendous improvement" in the reading skills of participating kids, recalls that one child in the program recently approached her and said, "Ms. Harris, I can read."
"That just made my day."