Educators tackle reading problems
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than half of the students at East Bank Middle School read at least two years below the expected level.
It's a harsh and frustrating reality for Principle Mike Wilkinson, his teachers and county administrators.
The problem doesn't suddenly crop up the day students enter the sixth grade.
"We want to get them up to a ninth-grade level, but it's hard to do when they come to us ... on a third- or fourth-grade level," Wilkinson said Thursday in a phone interview.
Kanawha County middle school students scored well above the state average in reading and language arts on last year's Westest. But with only about 50 percent of middle school students at the state and county level earning proficient scores, many still need help.
Every year, each Kanawha County elementary and middle school assesses student skills in math and reading, said Missie Ruddle, assistant superintendent for middle schools.
Schools use the data to determine whether a student needs additional reading help; most retest the student in the middle and at the end of the year to see whether the help is working, Ruddle said.
Students who need extra help have shown great improvement with the assistance of scholastic software, she said.
"Read 180" has been in place the longest, said Dr. Thomas Williams, assistant superintendent for curriculum.
The program is designed for students in middle school and ninth grade, and they work through it in sessions, he explained.
After 15 minutes of work on a computer, students could rotate to 15 minutes of independent reading time or direct instruction from a teacher.
That program is for students close to their appropriate reading level, he said. The county has recently turned to the "Achieve 3000" software for students who are further behind.
The software focuses on the individual's reading level but doesn't isolate the student, Williams explained.
"It gives the kids the same article or the same story to read, only for you it meets you at your reading level," Williams said. "It's not like the smart kids are reading that story and I'm dumb so I read this story."
The program works well with East Bank students, Wilkinson said. They particularly enjoy the incorporation of reading and technology: he said the students responded well to an email-like portion of the software.
Students reading above grade level receive advanced lessons through the program as well, Williams said. It's another tool teachers can use to provide the individual attention difficult to come by in increasingly packed classrooms.
The school system is piloting a new program at Andrew Jackson Middle School for sixth-graders struggling to read. Called "System 44," it's produced by the same company that makes Read 180, said Rhonda Donohoe, principal.
Although the Cross Lanes middle school boasted some of the best reading and language arts Westest scores in the state, Donohoe — a former Read 180 teacher — said she's happy to try the new program to see that all students get the reading help they need.
The program also emphasizes individualized work on a computer, but Donohoe said the small group portion is particularly beneficial. She said it's too early in the year to see how the program has affected reading scores, but she thinks the extra work can't hurt.
Determining why a student entered middle school with a low reading level is difficult.
It's not necessarily the elementary school's fault, Ruddle and Wilkinson said.
East Bank teachers and staff work with their feeder elementary schools to gauge the academic levels of students about to enter their doors, and Ruddle said that is common practice in the county.
Outside factors could contribute to low scores.
A large percentage of East Bank students come from economically disadvantaged environments and tend to score lower than more affluent students.
East Bank is also a School Improvement Grant recipient, eligible for the federal aid because it has been identified as a perpetually low-performing school.
It's not the only school with that demographic, and Ruddle said educators don't use such factors as excuses. Wilkinson said students shouldn't either.
"I've seen kids come through here with horrible home lives who do great at school," Wilkinson said. "Some have great home lives and have the attitude (that) 'I don't want to do this.' "
Parents can help shift attitudes, Ruddle said. More reading at home is one of the best ways to rapidly improve a student's test score.
Many East Bank parents already encourage their children to read, Wilkinson said, but he admitted others could do better.
Finding reading material pertaining to a subject a child enjoys can have a huge impact, Donohoe said. If a student likes dirt bikes, a racing journal could pique his or her interest more than the reading assigned by a teacher, she said.
Any reading helps vocabulary and comprehension skills, which the student will use in every class, Ruddle said.
"If every kid went home and read for an hour after school, that would be the best homework he could have," she said.
The county placed more emphasis on reading last year and saw scores improve at a majority of schools. At the same time, math scores decreased.
Ruddle said additional help in reading or math doesn't cut into a student's required curriculum, but finding the right educational balance is always a challenge.
East Bank's Westest reading and language arts scores improved this year, but they remain the lowest in the county and below state averages.
Wilkinson said it would take continued diligence on the part of both school and parents to see consistent, positive change.