March 16, 2002

Los Angeles Times

Kathryn Dronenburg, 55; Phonics Lessons Advocate


Kathryn Dronenburg, a teacher who as a member of the California Board of Education was one of the earliest and most knowledgeable voices advocating the importance of phonics lessons in learning to read, has died. She was 55.

Dronenburg, of El Cajon, died at home March 9 after battling cancer for more than two years.

Dronenburg was appointed in 1990 by Gov. George Deukmejian, joining the state board soon after the state had imposed the "whole language" philosophy of reading instruction on the public schools. Under that approach, children were expected to intuit the structure of words and to develop a love of reading through repeated exposure to literature. In the early 1990s the state also engineered a dramatic shift in math lessons that downplayed the importance of teacher-led lessons and practice and instead expected children to work in groups to discover math fundamentals. Dronenburg, who had taught elementary school for four years before starting her family, raised questions about both movements.

By the mid-1990s, evidence was mounting that the teaching of math and reading had gone awry, and parents and teachers from around the state began complaining that children were not learning. When those complaints reached the state board, Dronenburg proved to be an ally, and over the next several years she would be a patient but forceful voice who brought grace as well as classroom experience to the debate.

By the time she left the board last spring, the state had done an about-face in its approach to math as well as reading. When a new reading policy that stressed skills as well as literature was passed in 1996, Dronenburg said she was "thrilled and emotional" about the action.

"She was one of the first to listen to parents," said Michael McKeown, a San Diego parent who was an outspoken critic of the state's "fuzzy math" philosophy.

"One of the things she had going for her was that she was such a charming person that she was willing to do the things required but was never anxious to hurt someone's feelings or be brutal about it."

Ernie Dronenburg, her husband of 35 years, said Dronenburg had returned to teach first grade in a San Diego school in the fall of 1998 after the couple's youngest daughter went back to college. To make sure her students got a good grounding in phonics, she bought her own reading materials.

"We went out and purchased it for her kids because she believed so strongly in it," he said. "She always loved teaching, that was her passion."

Dronenburg brought the same passion to the state board. "She put in the time," he said. "She was always prepared, she would really study and work so she understood everything, and that's why she was so successful."

Dronenburg was born in Hayward but moved as a child to San Diego, where she graduated from Crawford High School. She graduated from San Diego State University with honors in 1967 and later earned a certificate as a reading specialist.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by three daughters, Kristen Lee Palenchar of Solano Beach and Amy Mae Dronenburg and Stephanie Ann Dronenburg, both of El Cajon; two sisters, Anita Graham of La Jolla and Elizabeth Mustol of La Mesa; and a grandchild, Alexa Kay Palenchar of El Cajon.

Memorial donations may be made to the PTSA Kathy Dronenburg Fund for Reading at Juarez Elementary School, 2633 Melbourne Drive, San Diego, CA 92123.


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