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Increased reading scores at two schools -- Niagara Falls Middle and Maple Avenue Elementary -- have earned state recognition.

The two schools have instituted several programs to boost those scores over previous years, and on Friday, as state Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills visited Niagara Falls to tour the high school, the two principals and the superintendent briefed him on the effort.

In 1995, when only 75 percent of Maple Avenue's third-graders tested above the state minimum level for reading, school administrators instituted a number of innovative programs, said Mark Laurrie, Maple Avenue principal.

The All-School Reading Program, for example, requires 75 minutes of reading "first thing every morning" for each pupil at their individual instructional level.

Booster programs, where small groups of children work with one or two teachers on specific reading skills, have also been initiated.

The efforts have paid off, judging from last year's state report card, with 91 percent of the 46 third-graders tested reading above the state minimum level. In addition, 30.4 percent of the third-graders tested performed with distinction, reading advanced fiction such as "Black Beauty" and "Runaway Ralph."

"Already we've brought back retired teachers to work with the kids, some on a volunteer basis and some by independent contract," Laurrie added.

At Niagara Middle, meanwhile, 95 percent of the 165 sixth-graders tested -- or 157 pupils -- read above the state minimum level. That is compared to 81 percent in 1995-96. Additionally, 62.4 percent performed with distinction, reading the front page of the New York Times and fiction such as "Moby Dick."

Edward Marinucci, principal at Niagara Middle, credited early identification efforts in boosting the school's reading scores.

"We know right now the fifth-graders and what their needs are," Marinucci said. "For example, if they are reading below their grade level, we will buy appropriate materials for them."

He cited the "parent contract" -- "parents agree to read with the child for 'X' amount of time every evening" -- for helping boost reading scores.

"We've also encouraged reading through book fairs and book exchanges."

Superintendent Carmen A. Granto suggested to Mill the state's technology requirement for middle-school pupils be made optional.

"Home careers and technology is required in the middle school," Granto said. "We want to make that optional. We want to double the time for kids with reduced reading and math skills to concentrate on those skills. We're not diminishing the value of home careers and technology; we would offer it in high school."

Granto also pitched the idea of independent study in a concept he called "seat time vs. learning."

"A specific amount of time is attached to courses and staying in the classroom," Granto said. "If a student can finish the course in 10 weeks, let him. It gives the kids who need traditional learning a reduced class size.

"We're saying keep the standards high, but leave the how-to to local districts and hold us responsible for the results," Granto said. "I think the public will be surprised."

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