CALENDAR FOR JAN. 25

Jan. 25, 2013 @ 09:35 AM

Despite the fact that most people read every day — whether a book, a billboard or even a text message — people of all ages still struggle with that skill — including local middle-schoolers.

The Lee County Board of Education recently approved allocating nearly a quarter of a million dollars for programs aimed at helping middle school students become better readers, revealing in the process that about 60 percent of students in grades 6-8 are either reading below grade level or are at grade level but at risk of regressing.

Last year, 32.2 percent of middle school students in Lee County failed the reading portion of the state’s standardized test, the EOG — and that number could go up significantly next year because of the state’s switch to a new system called Common Core, officials said.

Local educators say Common Core is more difficult than the previous curriculum because it places higher expectations on students, especially in reading. Carol Chappell, the director of K-5 instruction for Lee County Schools, noted that when Kentucky switched to Common Core, the number of students deemed proficient at reading dropped by one-third. She said she doesn’t think Lee County will see such a drastic change, but that there most likely will be a drop.

Tina Poltrock, the district’s director of secondary education, said multiple reading programs are in place for middle schoolers, in addition to the myriad programs in the elementary schools. However programs, while helpful, won’t solve the problem alone. Reading skills only improve through practice, she said, and most of a student’s time that could be spent reading is outside teachers’ control.

“Students are not going to read a book just because we say so or their parents say so,” Poltrock said, noting that with television, Internet, video games and sports, students have more competition for their time than ever before.

Andy Bryan, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the newly purchased programs — READ 180 and System 44, which cost a combined $247,783 — will help three distinct groups of middle schoolers: Those who are significantly below grade level, those who are a year or two behind and those who are at grade level or even above but could slide backward without additional help.

“This is part of an ongoing effort to prepare our students for the future,” Bryan said. “The world is changing so fast... and if we can get them to the highest levels possible, the better opportunities they’re going to have.”

The district purchased enough materials — including tracking software, reading consultants and professional development for teachers — to put 60 students from each middle school into System 44, which helps students at a basic reading level, and 120 in each school into READ 180, which can help the rest.

In addition to school initiatives, there are a variety of after-school programs in the area that can help students with homework, and tutoring is an option for those who can afford it. But because reading problems and poverty are often linked, Chappell said, and two-thirds of students in Lee County Schools are considered economically disadvantaged, that option might not be realistic.

Community members who want to help can get involved through local schools, charities or through volunteerlee.com, a website that aggregates volunteer opportunities in the area. According to that website, SanLee Middle School is looking for math and reading mentors to meet with students after school on Wednesdays, and B.T. Bullock Elementary School is looking for men to read to small groups of students once a week during lunch, with the dual goals of increasing reading skills and giving them a positive male role model.

And at the Lee County Library, children as young as 5 will now be allowed to get their own library cards, in hopes of instilling a love of reading as soon as possible.

“We still think a library card maintains its mystique and its value; it’s kind of like a key card in that it unlocks so much,” Library Director Michael Matochick said, adding that audiobooks can get kids who have difficulty with reading to explore literature without frustration and might encourage them to become more open to challenging themselves once they get hooked.

“That’s a nice little doorway into reading,” he said.