NAHUNTA, Ga. - A class of Brantley County High School students shoots hoops as part of their spelling lesson. Nearby, another class studies phonics by playing letter-sound bingo. Meanwhile, at Hoboken Elementary School, teacher Kathy Lee and paraprofessional Barbara Crews work with small groups of first-graders to decipher a storybook.
These scenes are common in south Georgia's Brantley County, "where reading comes first," according to the motto emblazoned on school district stationery and business cards.
"We're not inventing the wheel," School Superintendent William "Al" Hunter said. "We have a very basic approach to reading. We spend a lot of time and a lot of our resources on it."
With an enrollment of about 3,200 and a budget of about $19 million, the rural district is among the poorest public school systems in Georgia.
But county school officials have focused their limited resources - augmented by education grants - on reading programs in the past several years. As a result, overall reading skills as measured by statewide standardized tests show consistent improvement.
"Our goal is every child will read and will read on grade level," said Principal Susie Jacobs of Hoboken Elementary, which has the county's highest percentage of pupils at or above state standards.
"Right now, we're working on strategies to deliver the lessons better," she said. "Whatever program supports reading efficiency, we'll focus on that."
Brantley has adopted successful programs from other school systems but also has developed its own curricula, Mr. Hunter said. For example, the district created a high school reading enrichment program six years ago that has become a model for others in the state.
In the elementary and middle schools, the emphasis is on early detection and then help for pupils having reading difficulties, said Nancy Ursrey, a district literacy coach.
"With children having reading problems, we work with them one-on-one and in small groups," Ms. Ursrey said. "That way the trouble doesn't multiply and we can get a good foundation laid for their future learning."
To help pay for its reading programs, the district has obtained almost $1 million in grants since 1998, Mr. Hunter said.
Pupil reading skills in Brantley County have improved steadily in the past six years, according to academic test score data compiled by the Georgia Department of Education.
Most elementary and middle school pupils met or exceeded state academic standards for reading skills at each grade level for the past two years, according to results of the statewide Criterion Referenced Competency Test.
Before that, pupil reading skills showed an overall 11 percent average increase per grade level from 1996 through 2000, according to results of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which has been replaced by CRCT.
In the past two years, the district has reduced its percentage of pupils not meeting CRCT reading standards - from 36 percent of pupils in fourth, sixth and eighth grades to 20 percentofpupils in those grades.
"I'd like to have at least two more teachers, one for reading development and the other for math development, per grade in grades one through six," Mr. Hunter said. "But that would cost a considerable amount of money, and we just don't have it. So we're focusing the resources that we do have on it."
The district was the first in Georgia to develop and implement a high school reading enrichment program. Founded in 1997 at Brantley County High School, the program has been a model for other school systems statewide.
The yearlong course is voluntary. Students sign a contract to comply with program requirements, such as reading at least an hour a day outside of class, said Assistant Principal Shelli Tyre, who created the program and was its first teacher.
"We've taught about 150 students in the program since it started," Ms. Tyre said. "A lot of the program's success is attributable to the fact that it's voluntary. The kids want to be there. We identify those who meet the criteria for the program, but we don't force them into it."
Principal Tonya Foster said about 50 students are enrolled in the course this semester. The course provides intensive instruction in phonics, reading comprehension and writing.
Ms. Tyre and reading teacher Lora Harvard are the instructors, and most of the students are freshmen. Each student is evaluated at the beginning and end of each semester, Ms. Harvard said.
"During our first year, we had a student who advanced her reading by seven grade levels. But our average advancement is about two grade levels per semester," Ms. Tyre said.
The 90-minute class relies on small groups and individualized instruction, along with a variety of classroom incentives, to keep lessons interesting, Ms. Harvard said.
"I have six students who've made such progress and improved so much that they won't have to take the second semester of this course," she said.
County educators are also using the Accelerated Reader, a technology-based literacy program, in all grade levels. Parents and other volunteers assist pupils with their reading lessons.
The success of the reading program has prompted school officials to begin using a similar approach to teaching math.
"Reading really does come first," Mr. Hunter said. "If we can teach kids to read, then we can teach them math, science and other subjects. Reading is the backbone of every other education program."
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