Catching up on reading

Camp targets local kids struggling with key skill
Jul. 25, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Educators have known for years that students who don’t read at grade level by third grade are significantly more likely to drop out of school and experience other academic and social problems.

So with Lee County Schools having just wrapped up its first summer reading camp in half a decade, in which several dozen struggling students finally broke through and passed reading tests, local educators are pleased. Carol Chappell, the district’s director of elementary education, said the first-, second- and third-grade students who attended the camp benefited from smaller class sizes, as well as the luxury of focusing on a single subject.

“They were there for reading, and only reading, all day,” Chappell said. “There wasn’t that sense of, ‘Hurry up and finish.’ ... They could really focus and also get that individual help they need.”

The main target of the camp was third-grade students, following a national trend. One sociology professor found in 2011 that children who can’t read at grade level by third grade are up to 13 times less likely to graduate from high school. He said it’s because starting in fourth grade, children begin learning more complex topics and are expected to be able to read and comprehend text books and novels to grasp those concepts. Students who struggle with basics, therefore, only fall further behind.

Reading camps like the one in Lee County were added back to the state budget last year after fewer than half of third-graders across North Carolina tested at grade level under the new, more difficult Common Core standards.

Of the 160 Lee County third-graders at this summer’s camp, 109 were there for remediation after failing two reading tests in the spring. Chappell said 39 of them were reading at grade level by the end of the month-long camp, a 36 percent success rate that she said was quite high given the previous struggles they had demonstrated.

Those who passed will transition normally into fourth grade; the others who failed the test again this summer or didn’t attend the camp will be put into a third/fourth grade transitional class in the fall with a heavy focus on reading. They will take the third-grade test again toward the end of the first semester, and those who fail yet again will either be held back in third grade or advanced to regular fourth-grade classes based on their principal’s discretion.

Chappell, though, said she has faith in the students who are still struggling because even the ones who didn’t fare well in the summer camp at least showed a sincere effort to improve.

“They took a book and a folder home every night and had a specific reading assignment in there,” she said. “... And the kids always brought it right back in, so that’s a good sign.”

The summer camp also made use of a new computer program called I-Ready, Chappell said, which gave students harder and harder questions until they missed one — and then became easier until they got one right again — to give a detailed, individual report on every child’s skill level as well as specific strengths and weaknesses.

According to emails teachers sent Chappell after the reading camp ended, the software was a big hit.

“I loved how it individualized the program within the domains so that it benefited the children who were lacking in one area but excelling in another,” wrote Michele Cox, a first-grade teacher at Broadway Elementary School who will work as a reading specialist this coming year.

J. Glenn Edwards kindergarten teacher Christine Derkacz said she thinks teachers and students alike would benefit from wider use of the program.

“The kids loved it, and it really helped me to see where each child was instructionally, and I was able to target specific skills,” Derkacz wrote. “I have already recommended that J. Glenn Edwards purchase this program. Now that I have used the I-ready program, I honestly can’t imagine teaching reading without the program.”

Another Edwards teacher, 30-year veteran Gaynell McIver, gave 10 reasons why she loved the program and added, “Students were completely engaged and devoted to their individual lessons on I-Ready each day. This to me says it all about this program.”