Thursday, April 2, 2015

In the Literacy War, Let's Not Forget Our Secondary School Students

Mayor Muriel Bowser is taking aim at several issues facing our young African-American students. Her recently announced strategy to combat low literacy rates among students in D.C. Public Schools is a step in the right direction for our most disadvantaged youths. However, I’m concerned the proposal is missing a key component of ensuring literacy among students who need the most support.  

Although the Mayor has not announced details of the implementation of the plan to promote literacy, her preliminary announcement makes it clear that the focus will be on the achievement of elementary school students. Two reputable organizations, Literacy Lab and Reading Partners, will lead the efforts to pair up tutors with students with reading challenges.  

(Disclaimer: I know the Executive Directors of both these organizations, and RICH partners with DCPS to provide services to students at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School.)

The Mayor's plan may in fact greatly decrease the number of students in elementary school who do not approach functional reading level (sixth grade) by the time they enter middle school. At present, in Ward 8, a clear majority of elementary school age students are not at grade level, including about one third of students who are several grades below grade level when they leave elementary school.

The trouble lies in our ignoring the problem of illiteracy at the middle school and high school levels. The percentage of students in Ward 8 on grade level who leave middle school is approximately 20%. In tenth grade, the number goes down from there. Ten percent of freshmen read at the first grade level or lower. Many of the students in this predicament are enrolled but have stopped coming to school.

No proposal has been put forth to address this gap in literacy and school attendance for those who have moved on to the second half of their primary educational career.

I recommend the following model for our neighborhood middle schools and high schools, with some similarities to the Mayor's plan, but with some adaptations.  

In middle school, any student more than three grades below grade level needs an intervention. Smaller classes, reading circles, and peer tutoring have unproven track records. The students we’re talking about need experienced, professional tutors to teach phonics or whatever strategy needed to help unlock the mystery that is reading.  

The level of intervention I’m suggesting won’t be easy. Three hours of tutoring weekly during school time could properly assess a student quickly and put such a student back on an optimistic, improving path. It might take two years, but such a student could improve to functional reading level inside that time frame.  

You would need tutors who are reading specialists. Learning how to read does not happen by osmosis for these students; they see a huge cipher they need help solving by a trained, experienced professional.

What are the costs for an intensive tutoring program?

Tutoring can be expensive. RICH has been able to hire tutors at $40/hour, well below the market rate, but these tutors have a mission and a personal passion for helping low-income students.  

Tutoring for thirty weeks for $120/week comes to nearly four thousand dollars. We could save money by creating student pairs or even threesomes. As we know, the cost of not teaching someone to read is much more daunting. One quarter of our freshmen are incarcerated by age 35. Most of these prisoners have learning disabilities and may have had many of the struggles in school we see our students have everyday.

For the huge number of students arriving in high school with low reading levels, life is indeed precarious. Already mentally disengaged from school, they start to physically disengage. Intervening at this late stage is a relatively low percentage endeavor, but that should not be a reason to forgo creating a plan addressing these students.

Similar to my middle school plan, trained, professional tutors need to see these students on a regular basis. In RICH's history, almost all the low readers we see with relatively good attendance (80% or more days attended) make significant reading gains for the first time in years. Unfortunately, there are usually students who cease coming to school; the experience becomes hard and overwhelming.  

These students who stop coming to school need immediate and creative intervention. We must visit their homes to try to get them to come back to school to tell them there will be a tutor to shepherd them. In our first four years working in DCPS high schools, RICH was able to get dozens of such students to return, but it takes a well coordinated effort among school administrators and supplemental service staff. A truant, dyslexic child cannot wait for the bureaucratic process currently in place, in which letters are mailed, threats are made, and meetings are scheduled. At present, few adults do any real outreach, troubleshooting, or problem solving on behalf of these students.

I commend the Mayor for making plans to help our elementary school students who have reading challenges. For the safety, security, and humanity of our city, we need a robust plan to help our secondary students as well. I hope our city will create a plan for these students as well. They need it and deserve it.

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