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Cuts help children learn;Research Focus

It is not immediately obvious why Burke County was last year rated by Readers Digest as one of the best 10 places to live in the United States.

The major employers in this rural corner of North Carolina are two huge prisons and two mental institutions. And many residents are poor. No fewer than 34 per cent of its 13,400 school-aged children qualify for free meals.

But the county does have more than natural beauty to boast about: it also has one of the most far-sighted education programmes in the US, as a paper presented by Patrick Harman and Paula Egelson made clear.

The programme begins in the maternity ward where advisers provide information on parenting. Monthly home visits are then offered to parents to help them understand their children's developmental needs. They are also encouraged to attend parenting classes and use a parent library.

The county has also set up intensive reading programmes for elementary-school children. But it is the decision to reduce infant class sizes from 25 to 15 that seems most remarkable from an English perspective. The limit was introduced in four of the 14 elementary schools in 1991-92 but was later adopted by the remaining schools after an evaluation revealed that children in the smaller classes were a year ahead of their peers in reading and maths.

The evaluators' findings would have come as no surprise to the teachers in the pilot schools. As one teacher said: "In larger groups it took twice as long to do anything - like going to the lunch room or rest room, returning papers, or taking attendance. In smaller classes I have quality time with the students."

But it is not only educational attainment that has improved. Teachers have found that there is less indiscipline and more collaboration. Children have developed stronger relationships and their confidence has improved.

"We could have easily scrapped reduced class size two years after it started because we could say we just don't have the money for this," one Burke County administrator told the researchers. "But instead of doing that, we looked at the merits of what had happened, became very creative and got the funding we needed to go forward."

Contact: e:mail phharman@hamlet.

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