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'A Tale of Two Schools' probes difficulties of teaching youngsters to read

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"W'e can't create miracles. We need some help here!" This plaintive cry of an inner-city Texas reading teacher goes a long way toward summing up the message of "A Tale of Two Schools," a PBS documentary about the task of teaching children to read.

The job is hard enough in an affluent area where parents reinforce lessons at home, materials arrive on time, and teachers receive the training they need. But in the two low-income communities profiled in this hour-long show, helping a child succeed can sometimes feel like the loneliest job in the world.

The good news, however, this documentary implies, is that with help, success is possible. Narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, "A Tale of Two Schools" picks up at the start of the school year, focusing on two classrooms. One is a first-grade class at Walton Elementary, a Fort Worth, Texas, school long considered one of the worst in the state but now in the middle of a turnaround.

The other school is a second-grade class at Bearden Elementary, a school struggling to educate some of the nation's poorest children, in Sumner, Miss.

While the documentary breaks no new ground in examining the challenges of turning low-income children into fluent readers, it does put a human face on the situation.

The show's directors choose to focus on one child in each class. At Walton the cameras zoom in on Tavares, a likable and irrepressible boy who is already beginning life with several strikes against him. His face is scarred from an accident, his mother has left the family, and he missed most of kindergarten.


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