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February 28, 2013

Sounding Out Success: Elementary School Tutoring Programs Work To Keep Literacy On Track

As sun streamed through the windows of the library at Edwin J. Kiest Elementary in Far East Dallas, a group of 10 students worked with volunteers on reading, writing and spelling.

The students, all first graders, were part of the school’s in-school reading program, which launched Friday.

“Our school is [rated] academically unacceptable right now, so there’s a great push to get us acceptable,” Kiest principal Candice Ruiz said.

But it’s more than that, Ruiz said.

“You learn to read and then you read to learn,” she said, and if students’ reading levels are below grade-level, it hurts them in the long run.

Ruiz, who lives in Cedar Hill, became Kiest’s principal in August. The program came about when Dan Micciche, Dallas ISD school board trustee for District 3, introduced her to Lauren Coppedge of The Launch Collaborative.

“It’s extremely important because first and foremost we need to do everything we can to get our kids to read at grade level,” Micciche said. “Second, we need to use community volunteers effectively and efficiently, and third, we need to have neighborhoods support their neighborhood schools.”

Although the program at Kiest is starting small, Ruiz said her kids deserve the best and she hopes to see it grow.

“I think it’s going to work for us,” she said.

The program at Kiest was created to mirror and enhance the lessons students are learning in the classroom. At the school, which has more than 700 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, the achievement gaps are large. By fifth grade more than half of the students are below the target reading level by at least a grade level.

“We’re trying to look at all our options,” Ruiz said, to narrow that gap.

Coppedge, who founded The Launch Collaborative in 2011, said they hope to see test scores improve and students catch up as the program grows. This semester, the program will include about 20 students, who see a volunteer twice weekly in 30-minute intervals.

“The goal is that this extra time will improve those [low] test scores and ultimately that these kids go to second grade prepared,” said Coppedge, who volunteered her time to help build the curriculum. Ruiz said they hope to see the program’s volunteer base grow to include parents and community members.

Volunteer Jerri Shevlin, who chairs the Casa View Oaks Neighborhood Watch, said she was excited about the program’s potential.

“I’m already thinking that maybe I should come twice per week so I can do a better job,” she said. “I’m excited about Principal Ruiz and her willingness to be a part of the community; we see this as a positive change.”

Reading is key

Across Ferguson Road, Reading Partners, a national nonprofit that works with schools to improve reading, has a similar program in play at George W. Truett Elementary and Bayles Elementary. Reading Partners entered Truett last year as part of a pilot program with Dallas ISD. Based on the results this year, the district invited the nonprofit into 10 schools – all of which are Title I campuses.

In Dallas, 89 percent of low-income students are not reading at their grade level, said Chrissie McBryde, outreach coordinator for Reading Partners. “Our students are reading six months to two and a half years behind the reading level,” she said.

Their program is also twice-weekly 30-minute sessions with volunteers, and it’s driven by the students.

“If the student is picking up on something really quickly, they’re able to move on,” McBryde said.

Schools with Reading Partners give the program a designated space and an AmeriCorps member is assigned to the school as site coordinator to oversee the program.

At Truett, Lina Tran has been site coordinator since school started in August. She did mid-year assessments last week, and said students in the program were showing measurable gains in reading.

Of the 20 students who have been enrolled since September, 18 have caught up to the grade level.

“Eleven of the 20 are not only caught up, but they’re beyond where they’re supposed to be,” Tran said. “Those are really exciting numbers.”

Volunteer Claire Burns, a Richardson resident, is a retired Truett teacher. She said the program’s elements make a difference.

“Reading is the most important thing; it’s the basis of everything – even math,” she said. “It’s good for the kids to have the individual attention.”

At Truett, about 75 volunteers, including students from neighboring Bishop Lynch High School, help about 50 total students. Bayles’ program is smaller, as it just began this year. There, 18 volunteers work one-on-one with 23 students.

“Bayles has a bigger array of students, so they’re in different grade levels,” McBryde, the outreach coordinator, said. “At Truett we’re working with more second graders.”

All three of the schools could use more volunteers, organizers said. Micciche, the trustee, said it boils down to the area deserving good schools.

“Great neighborhoods need great schools,” he said.

–Ananda Boardman, Neighborsgo

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