Literacy interns have
proved their worth
Ronnie Polaneczky, September 16, 2002, Daily News
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit
Something truly weird is going down at the Alexander McClure
Since 1999, the number of McClure students identified as
"mentally gifted" has risen from five to 42.
"I told my staff, either a lot of 'gifted' families have
suddenly moved into the neighborhood," said principal Vera
Dierkes, referring to McClure's tough, 6th and Hunting Park
location, "or we're doing something right."
Since nothing indicates that Mensa For Kids has opened on the
block, Dierkes credits McClure's astounding uptick in
giftedness to the use of "literacy interns" who pair with
classroom teachers to provide intense reading instruction.
What's more, a greater percentage of her students are moving
into higher levels of reading and writing than they were
before McClure began piloting the intern program, with a
handful of other schools, back in 1999.
Literacy interns are now in every elementary school, and every
indication shows their presence is a godsend.
Which means - of course! - that their positions are in danger
of being axed.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me fill in the
The intern initiative began a few years ago, when the feds
doled out money to help school districts reduce class size.
Many districts chose to man extra classrooms with extra
In Philly, lack of space and teachers made that impossible.
Instead, "literacy interns" - specially trained college grads
who lacked teacher certification - partnered with classroom
teachers, the happy result being fewer students per teacher in
the lower grades.
The interns were trained to promote the district's
"balanced-literacy" approach to reading, which immerses
students in guided group and individual reading. Since there's
an extra teacher in the room, kids who need extra help get it;
and more advanced students aren't held back by slower
Dierkes thinks that's why her number of gifted students has
increased so dramatically.
"With the right attention, the giftedness of some of our
children is really showing up, and others are reading and
writing more proficiently," she said.
Which lays to rest the notion that inner-city kids can't
Most parents I know rave about the "balanced literacy" reading
approach, and, just as importantly, the use of interns to help
execute it. I can vouch for the system firsthand. When my
daughter began kindergarten last year, she was able to read
and write one word: her name. By June, she and her classmates
had each written their own short story.
Clearly, the success of the balanced literacy program with the
use of literacy interns to support it. In addition, they
provide a sort of farm team of teacher recruits, since they're
given lots of training and encouraged to go for their teacher
At McClure, for example, five new teachers began their careers
last week - all of them former interns who, after being in the
Philly trenches, decided they actually wanted to work here
instead of in the better-paying suburban districts. Elsewhere
in the district, 102 other former literacy interns are now
manning their own classrooms.
Is that fab marketing, or what?
So here we have a program that reduces class size, taps kids'
reading and writing potential, and feeds a teacher pipeline
that's forever sputtering dry.
And district insiders fear it's doomed.
The federal dollars to pay for the program are petering out,
they say, since President Bush's "No Child Left Behind"
program calls not just for reduced class size but for
certification of all classroom teachers. Since we're always
short on certified teachers, literacy-intern positions are in
"We can still have interns," said one source.
"We just won't have the federal money to pay for them."
I could just cry. When it comes to innovation, this school
district has been plagued with a two-steps-forward,
three-steps-back mentality that pretty much assures that a
decent program will get replaced with a new one, just as its
shifting into high gear and - gasp! - beginning to deliver on
We've tossed so many babies out with the bathwater, it's a
wonder the district doesn't have an inch-thick file with DHS.
Except now, it's the feds who are tossing out those babies for
It's not right, and it's not fair. This program deserves not
just to be saved, but to be expanded so that more students get
the attention they deserve.
Because a child's mind - gifted and otherwise - is a terrible
thing to waste.