Are schools making progress on literacy?

Mitchell Elementary School Master Reading Teacher Lisa Miller works with first-grader Donovan Grant last week. Miller works with three or four students at a time in the reading program to improve the students’ reading skills.

New data shows the Charleston County School District is still struggling to reduce the number of students reading below grade level, despite a concerted focus on literacy in the district’s elementary and middle schools.

Since 2012 the number of students in grades 3-8 reading below grade level has risen from 10.8 percent to 13.5 percent in the spring of 2014. That trend was seen across all grades except eighth, where there was a slight improvement.

Betsy Reidenbach, director of instructional support for literacy-based learning, said she is frustrated by the numbers and what appears to be a lack of progress.

Reidenbach said it’s been difficult to determine the true progress the district’s been making in literacy, in part because of changing educational standards for English, which switched last school year to the Common Core State Standards. States across the country have seen a dip in test scores, Reidenbach said, after implementing Common Core. And the state will change its standards for English and math again next school year, she said.

The effect of the changing standards, she said, is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

“It’s so hard for us to use anything here to judge our program,” she said.

Of the 2,287 elementary and middle school students reading below grade level, the biggest backslide was in sixth grade, where the number of students reading below grade level jumped from 11 percent, or 343 students, in 2012 to 16.7 percent, or 478 students, last spring.

Of all the students reading below grade level in 2014 more than half were English language learners or special-needs students. That leaves about 7.7 percent or 1,100 students reading below their grade.

The rise in students reading below grade level comes despite a push by the district in recent years to offer targeted attention to students struggling to read.

Since 2010 the district has launched two literacy programs — the Primary Grades Academy and the Middle Grades Academy — in all of its 45 elementary and 17 middle schools. Students qualify for the program based on a series of literacy assessments and test scores.

The Primary Grades Academy serves students in kindergarten through third grade, and the Middle Grades Academy provides services to students in grades 6-8.

Last school year, 2,287 elementary students and 666 middle school students participated in the program.

Mitchell Elementary Principal Deborah Smith, whose school has had positive results with the literacy programs, said the district’s overall literacy data “could be skewed” in terms of evaluating the success of the academies because the program is only in its fifth year. Depending on when a student started, Smith said, they may have only had one or two years in the program.

“If a student had this instruction beginning in third grade, they could possibly not show as much improvement as the students who began the program in first grade,” Smith said.

And while reading levels districtwide aren’t showing progress, Reidenbach said students in the literacy academies are making gains.

For example, of the 723 first-grade students served last school year, 83 percent ended the school year reading on grade level. Similar progress was made in the middle school academy, where 78.4 percent of 210 eighth-graders in the program finished the year reading on grade level.

And even for those students who don’t make it to grade level, some of whom may have been more than one grade behind, Reidenbach said data shows their reading is also improving.

“We know our children are growing,” she said.

There are signs that the literacy academies are making headway in some schools. At Mitchell Elementary reading scores for third-graders on the state’s Palmetto Assessment of State Standards have jumped from 52.2 percent of students meeting or exceeding English standards in 2009 to 89.5 percent in 2014.

Mitchell Elementary Master Reading Teacher Lisa Miller, who’s been teaching at the downtown Charleston school for 20 years, said she’s seen a cultural shift in the school since the literacy program started.

“I don’t see kids now who avoid reading,” she said. “Kids see books in this building as knowledge and entertainment.”

Miller said the biggest benefit to having a structured literacy program is that it’s comprehensive in its approach and engages all the teachers in the school about how to address the problem. Efforts focus on basics such as pronunciation of words, reading comprehension and writing.

The literacy academy at Mitchell, Smith said, has been key to providing more individual attention to students and resources for teachers to better track student progress. Teachers can now make adjustments to their lessons throughout the year to help students who may not be making gains.

The key, Smith said, is to catch students early.

“The most effective way for this program to work is to identify students as they enter school... and provide these interventions from the start and to continue with this support until the student overcomes their deficits,” Smith said.

School Board members Michael Miller and Tom Ducker are concerned the literacy academies are not as effective as the district had hoped. The pair, along with other board members, are requesting additional data to better identify which schools and students are still struggling. They hope to have the School Board’s Strategic Education Committee make recommendations for new strategies.

“We’re not seeing the kind of progress I’d like to see,” Ducker said. “Why aren’t we solving the problem in the Primary Grades Academy?”

“We can’t say something’s working if we don’t see the effects of it,” Michael Miller said.

The district is already evaluating its literacy programs, Reidenbach said, to determine whether changes need to be made. The district has added reading coaches in 30 schools, funded through the state’s new Read to Succeed legislation and a state-mandated reading summer camp for third-graders this summer is also in the works. Later this spring, the district will create a task force to develop a plan for high school students who aren’t reading on grade level.

The biggest challenges, Reidenbach said, are often things outside the classroom, such as parent support, study habits and poverty, that impact how well a student is reading.

“It’s multifaceted,” she said. “We cannot fix the problem in 30 minutes a day.”