Byline: Cynthia L. Garza, Times-Union staff writer
About 9 a.m., the kindergarten through second grade students of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Northwest Jacksonville were doing pretty much the same thing: word attack.
Kindergarten teacher Janet Szlosek rocked in her chair with her pointer finger working its way down the flip chart balanced on her lap. The students sat on the floor, leaned forward, ready to spell out and say the word.
Szlosek was using a teaching method known as direct instruction.
The program, used in 15 Duval County elementary schools, has been the target of controversy for the past five years. Talk of which reading programs best suit the lowest achieving students in the school system has resurged, now with a push for expansion -- and support -- of the direct instruction program for all of the school system's lowest-performing students in reading.
Direct instruction is a structured approach originally designed in the 1960s to accelerate the learning of at-risk students. The program follows a leveled sequence to teach the student at the fastest possible pace. Lesson plans are followed explicitly by teachers and students cannot move forward without first mastering skills at their level.
As Szlosek applied the method, when a student stumbled on a word, she stopped the momentum picked up in the lesson to correct the pronunciation error. She then picked up where she stopped.
School Board member Brenda Priestly Jackson is leading the discussion about the reading programs with Superintendent John Fryer and his staff. The full School Board is expected to talk about direct instruction during its June meeting, according to Chairwoman Kris Barnes.
The 1998 introduction of the direct instruction program into some of the school system's lowest-performing schools coincided with the hiring of Fryer, who initiated a standards-based model for teaching children to read. That model identifies standards for the student but the teaching method can vary among teachers.
Since then, the two programs have been pitted against each other.
The Interchurch Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, a group of 35 churches that support changes in citywide quality-of-life issues, presented a 1,200-signature petition at this month's School Board meeting that asked for an expansion and support of the program. The group has pushed for the use of direct instruction in public schools for the past five years.
Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary has used direct instruction for more than five years -- before the program tug-of-war began. …