Young readers reap benefits

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Teachers say a federal reading program designed to help schools meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act is having a big impact on Portales schools, but it’s probably not going to solve the problem of meeting the state’s AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress).

Reading First, a national reading program funded by the federal government after the NCLB act went into effect five years ago, focuses on kindergarten through third-grade students. Its goal is to have all students reading at grade level by the time they finish third grade, according to Reading First’s Web site.

Portales schools have been involved in the program for the last three years. Last fall statewide scores on the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) tests showed Portales schools scored among the highest in the state in reading with No. 1 rankings in two categories, according to a Portales Municipal School District news release.

“One of the reasons we looked at implementing the Reading First program was because we had looked at the AYP scores,” Director of Federal Programs for PMSD Trina Valdez said. “It’s (Reading First) affected it (reading achievement) in a very positive way. One of the things we’re doing now is looking at the data, and that data is driving our programming.”

The program provides for 90 minutes of Reading First activities daily in the classroom and allows proficient readers to move up to a more challenging group while providing intervention for those students having problems.

Valdez said the program provides the district with the latest research-based strategies and techniques for advancing readers and provides the benchmark models to judge how students are progressing.
“We’ve seen our students’ achievement improving,” Brown Elementary Principal Jackie Burns said.

James Elementary Principal Mike Terry agreed with Burns’ assessment of the program, saying he has noticed the results. He also said it’s having an effect on students’ self-esteem at his school.

“I think students are proud of the achievement they’ve made,” Terry said. “There are some who are becoming more proficient readers, and they’re proud of that.”

According to Valdez, one of the most valuable tools the Reading First program provides is a professional development component for teachers and administrators.

Burns agreed, and added that it allows schools to identify students with weak reading skills and provide quicker intervention. She also said being able to compare the Portales district with the 90 other districts involved in the state is a big help in identifying patterns.

Steiner Elementary Principal Becky Flen said one of the biggest benefits she has seen from the program is that it has teachers and administrators better aligned on reading curriculum. She says that has provided better continuity between grades for the students.

Why, then, would the schools be failing to meet AYP?

Teachers and administrators say that it’s because of the subgroups for special education and English language learners. They say that while reading achievement has gone up appreciably overall, they fear those subgroups will still be falling short. It may take more than Reading First to change that, they say.

Federal lawmakers are scheduled to rewrite the NCLB law that aims to close achievement gaps, and have all students reading and doing math at grade-level by 2014.

In the meantime, with the required state Standards Based Assessments wrapped up this past week, educators will cross their fingers through the summer and try to adjust their instruction the best they can. They say the lag in getting the test results back puts them behind in planning next year’s curriculum.

“Right now we feel very good about our testing, but we won’t know until the end of July,” Terry said.