Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy

Fellowship Title:

The Third Grade Answer

Colman McCarthy
May 15, 2001

Fellowship Year

During a recent visit to a maximum security prison in Virginia, where some 2,000 men are caged, I asked the warden to describe his most troublesome problem. I expected the usual answer – shivs, drugs, rapes, cellblock violence. Sure, he replied, all that is here. But his major problem is illiteracy. As many as 75 percent of the prisoners read at a third grade level. On release, he said, they won’t be able to find even unskilled jobs. Almost two-thirds will return to prison.

Not long after this exchange, I was speaking with an early-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary School in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest. When, I asked, do the Garrison children – nearly all from low-income homes, nearly all black, over 90 percent raised without fathers, all in a school similar to most of the other 109 in D.C. – realize that they are at best marginal, that the negatives in their lives are so many and so heavy that they have almost no chance of making it? When, in other words, do they begin to numb emotionally and turn inward by withholding the sustained effort needed for successful schoolwork? Third grade, she answered.

Third grade in the prisons; third grade in the schools.

In the prison, overwhelmingly peopled by the poor and dysfunctional, and in a minority neighborhood school, third grade is the cut-off.

In the current debate on how to improve America’s public schools – ranging from a right-wing national politician who scoldingly wants to free teachers “from all those impediments like unions” to the calls for reduced class size – the separation is less between the classic battle line of conservatives vs. liberals than a more basic division: problem-describers or solution-finders.

For my tastes, I’m weary of groaners who keep commandeering mikes and op-ed space to describe how educationally enswamped our schools are, while never spending any meaningful time in them. A better place to focus – and to be energized as well as informed – is in a school like Garrison Elementary.

Since the early 1990s, I have been visiting its classrooms, observing and getting to know some of the children, teachers, and administrators. From the evidence I have gathered, Garrison’s faculty is a child-centered mix of competence and caring. A major piece of evidence is the years-long effort to improve the reading skills of students in the early grades. The push began well before the Clinton administration’s Right to Read campaign and his call for every third grader in America to be literate.

The centerpiece of Garrison’s beyond-the-classroom exertion has been Elementary Baseball, an annual 9-month after-school literacy, sports, and mentoring program for students considered at risk for academic failure and delinquent behavior. My ties to Elementary Baseball are two. Its director is my 30-year-old son, John, a baseball coach and volunteer public high school teacher. He began the program in 1993 after playing minor league baseball and after receiving a rousing response during a motivational speech at a Garrison student assembly. Unfamiliar with baseball – a high-cost sport all but vanished from many inner cities – the children jumped at John’s offer to start a team. Garrison would become the only elementary school in the District of Columbia to have one.

My second link to Garrison is through service-minded students in my classes on nonviolence that I teach at several Washington-area schools (Georgetown Law, the University of Maryland, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School). When encouraged to get beyond books, theories, and term papers, and into the lives of poor children in desperate need of positive adult attention, large numbers of my students have responded by serving in Elementary Baseball.

When the program began, some skepticism was in order. Will it deliver the goods? Will the Garrison kids reading skills improve? Or is this one more dabble in civic charity, with no measurable results in anything except a temperature rise in warm feelings among the volunteers.

Because Elementary Baseball received a $100,00 federal grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention program, on-site monitoring and evaluation was required. In August, 1998, Caliber Associates, a Fairfax, Virginia evaluation firm, reported its findings. Children in the program – 70 in all, grades 3 through 6 – had benefited. Tutoring strongly contributed to the “participants’ positive performance on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test. For the 6th graders, program participants showed greater improvement in all test areas (total reading, vocabulary, and reading comprehension) than did the comparison youth (not in the program). For the 4th graders, program participants showed greater improvement in reading comprehension than did the comparison youth. On the other hand, the 4th grade participants scored lower on the vocabulary subtest in the spring than in the fall. Program staff attributes the greater improvement among the 6th grade participants compared to the 4th grade participants to the number of years in the program. The average number of years the 6th graders participated in Elementary Baseball was 2.7 years compared to 1.4 years for the 4th graders. The ‘veteran’ participants were more familiar with the tutors and the tutoring sessions, which enabled them to take full advantage of what the program had to offer. It is anticipated that, over time, the ‘rookie’ participants will do the same.”

No illusions should be had. As worthy as Elementary Baseball has proven to be, it stands as only one plus among many minuses in the children’s lives. Many are from single parent welfare families, which are often scenes of verbal or physical abuse. Television is the main mental stimulation. Books may be rare, reading seldom encouraged. Outside the home are still more negatives, the blights of economic violence perpetrated by racism and classism. At home or on the streets, words like “drop out,” “suspension,” “detention” and “expulsion” are likely to be the language of academic failure.

These assaults on the souls and minds of Garrison’s children, as with those inflicted on all children in minority and low-income neighborhoods, can be overcome. But not without contributions that include such programs as Elementary Baseball which, if sustained, could eventually help created the kind of learning communities taken for granted in the Brooklines, Skokies, and Bethesdas of America.

Or in the public schools in the neighborhoods of Washington where well-educated and well-employed parents raise their children confidently and comfortably. The published results of the spring 1998 Stanford 9 reading tests —- in four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, advanced – revealed that only four out of the District’s 109 elementary schools had more than 85 percent of their children in the proficient and advanced groups. All are in wealthy enclaves of Northwest Washington.

Such results were expected. Among the positive surprises were the scores from Garrison Elementary. It had a 312 percent increase in one year in the number of students who reached the advanced stage and an 83 percent increase in the proficient group. The number of children who were below basic decreased by 37 percent. No other school in the city which had a comparable number of poor children was close to matching Garrison’s achievement.

How did the teachers pull off this miracle? First of all, don’t call them miracle workers. In the dozens of times I’ve been in their classrooms, and especially those of four particular teachers, the decidedly unmiraculous has been on display: the quiet day-after-day zeal for inspiring the children to be learners while they themselves, the teachers, face obstacles – fatigue, school official papercrats, uninvolved parents, lack of supplies and books – that few outsiders can imagine. These are the teachers of whom Herbert Kohl writes in “The Discipline of Hope,” his 1998 book on 30 years as an educator: “People who spend everyday in the classroom have a healthy suspicion of all experts who try to tell them how to do their jobs but who could not survive a month in the classroom doing what they preach.”

In Elementary Baseball, the literacy tutoring is not test-driven. Instead, the children are encouraged to read aloud what interests them. Often, this is the sports section. Connections are made between the Garrison baseball games and those written about in newspapers. And then more connections, between their own lives and those of the pros. Anthony Brown, a three year veteran of Elementary Baseball, wrote for the third issue of “the Garrison News,” the program’s newsletter put together by a tutor form the Sidwell Friends School: “Baseball players are paid too much. Other people work as hard as professional players. It is not fair that baseball players are paid so much compared to hard working people. There are people who cannot afford things they really need. Professional players can get it off the top. What makes them so much better than us? I think they should give more charities money and help the people who are struggling.”

In the classroom, Anthony Brown is known as a star reader and able writer. On the baseball field, he is hitting home runs, too.

©2001 Colman McCarthy

Colman McCarthy, a freelance writer from Washington, D.C., spent his Patterson year researching mentoring, tutoring, and literacy at Garrison Elementary.

Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy