Arizona Republic
June 24, 2007

Author: Karina Bland, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 9

Phoenix, AZ

Three years ago, a group of first-graders at Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix determinedly set out to tackle one of life's most fundamental skills: learning to read.

Since then, the children have made huge strides in reading, with some doubling, tripling and even quadrupling their scores.

But at the end of this school year, only 15 of the 109 third-graders at this school are reading at grade level. Thirty-three students test near grade level. The other 61 children don't come close.

Across Arizona, students struggle to overcome language barriers and the influences of poverty, pivotal factors that place the state near the bottom of the nation in reading. A three-year project suggests that even additional resources and tutoring are not enough to overcome those obstacles.

In 2004, The Arizona Republic launched a partnership with Creighton in hopes of raising the children's reading scores. The newspaper provided $120,000 in grants over three years for reading specialists, books and teacher training.

Through field trips, students got a glimpse at the world beyond their own neighborhoods, going to places they read about in books but had never seen, such as the airport and fine-arts events. Volunteers from the newspaper also signed up to tutor students, logging almost 1,700 hours of reading.

The goal was lofty: all third-graders proficient at reading by the end of this school year, something that few schools in America have achieved, even under federal mandates to eventually do so. By that measure, the project failed.

But the tactics to improve their reading scores were sound, experts say, and the children are much better off than they would have been without the extra support.

Ten-year-old Juan Sotelo is reading three books at the same time.

A copy of The Littles is tucked in his desk. In his book bag are Burning of the Big Top and Werewolves Don't Go to Summer Camp.

When Juan reads aloud, he sounds as if he's pretty good at it: "William T.
Little and his family were tiny people. They lived in a house owned by George W. Bigg. Mr. Bigg and his family didn't know the Littles were living with them. The Littles kept out of sight."

But like most of his classmates, Juan is not reading well enough, not yet.

Obstacles they face

The children started school ill-prepared to learn to read, unlike many kids in the suburbs who have shelves of books at home and come to kindergarten already knowing the alphabet, the sounds letters make, and how to spell their own names.

Most spoke only Spanish, and even in their own language, their language skills were more like those of toddlers than 5- and 6-year-olds. Their first-grade teachers had to begin with the very basics.

Because the children started out so far behind, it would be difficult for them to catch up.

"These children have the Grand Canyon to bridge in a short period of time,"
says Karen Tankersley, a reading consultant and Arizona State University West professor.

At any other school with fewer poor students and fewer English-language learners, the same tactics to improve reading scores would have had much more significant results, Tankersley says. Those children would have spent less time learning English and more time actually learning to read.

In Arizona, only 24 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared with 30 percent nationally. Many Arizona children face the same obstacles as the children at Creighton: poverty, language barriers and, for many families, a transitory lifestyle that has them moving from place to place and changing schools.

The combination of those factors is almost insurmountable, given government timelines for teaching children to read, says Maryann DiRobbio, a literacy specialist at Creighton.

An estimated 160,000 English-learners are in Arizona. Although children are considered proficient as soon as they can pass an oral English exam, they struggle with their new language for years.

Once considered an issue only for urban districts, English-language learners are showing up in greater numbers in suburban schools as parents move into those areas, looking for jobs and affordable housing.

Studies show that the numbers of words children hear increases dramatically with family income. By age 3, a child from a poor household can face a 30-million-word gap compared with children from better-off homes.

DiRobbio tells of trying to explain a "garage" while reading with students.
The students looked at her blankly. She described a garage, even drew a picture. Finally, one child said, "Oh, that's a house where rich people put their cars."

"Their words are limited in their own language, and their conceptual framework is limited," DiRobbio says.

Adding to the problem is that almost half of the students who start the school year at Creighton will be gone by its end. Kids lose ground academically with each move.

"Our population is a moving target," Principal Rosemary Agneessens says.
"However, while they're with us, we give them all that we can."

Many of the most skilled readers in third grade at Creighton have been there at least since first grade. For example, 10 of the 15 third-graders who are reading at grade level were part of the reading project since its start. Of the 33 children nearing grade level, 27 have been at Creighton for at least those three years.

Overall, the third-graders in the reading project are better off than the previous year's third-graders. More children reached grade level -- 14 percent, compared with 12 percent last year -- and fewer were considered far below grade level -- 56 percent, compared with 61 percent last year.

"They certainly are in a much better place than they would have been without this support," second-grade teacher Jill Browne says.

School at stake

The children's reading scores are of interest to more than just their parents and teachers. The state and federal government is monitoring their progress, as well.

By federal standards, schools are required to make adequate yearly progress or face government intervention. For four years, Creighton hasn't met the standards under the No Child Left Behind law.

If enough of this year's third-graders didn't do well on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, a fifth year without adequate progress calls for restructuring, possible state takeover and a new principal.

Creighton's inability to make adequate yearly progress rests on its English-learners.

"Everyone in the federal government would just say, 'That's an excuse,' "
says David Berliner, an Arizona State University professor and expert on public education. "But the fact of the matter is it takes a while to master a language."

At one time, all children were given as much time as they needed to pick up reading. Now, the emphasis is on doing well on state and national tests, creating pressure in lower grades to learn more quickly.

"When those standards are set, they're set on average White kids with reasonably well-educated parents, and these are not average White kids with reasonably well-educated parents," Berliner says. "It's nice to have the standard in mind and know what to shoot for. That's not a bad notion. But to then punish schools because they don't meet those standards is ridiculous."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne agrees. He says the principal and teachers at Creighton are doing everything right, pointing to a new reading program this past school year, the partnership with the newspaper and the use of reading specialists and intensive interventions. By state standards, Creighton is a performing school.

"With 50 percent English-language learners, there is no way to make adequate yearly progress, even if they are doing everything perfectly," Horne says.
"They're not going to make adequate yearly progress, and it's not their fault."

Horne is suing the federal government over how the test scores of students learning English are counted in Arizona.

Until last year, state and federal education officials agreed to count the scores of English-language learners starting after the students' third year in the state, allowing them time to become proficient enough in English to pass an academic test.

But federal education officials now count those scores after only one year.
Horne says the kids need more time than that to learn a new language.

The kids at Creighton do catch up with their English-speaking peers in reading but not until the fourth or fifth grade, according to district and state test scores.

Berliner says that is soon enough: "If it happens in fourth or fifth grade, bravo. We should celebrate."

Small successes

Spend any time in the classrooms at Creighton and you'll see successes that tests don't measure.

At the start of the school year, 9-year-old Carlos Viveros was reading 21 words per minute. By the end, he was reading more than quadruple that rate, testing at 95 words per minute.

It was a tremendous effort on his part, but third-graders are expected to read 110 words per minute.

It was the teachers, of course, who gave the children instruction in reading, but their efforts were backed up for at least an hour a day by a tutor.

"I practiced reading all the time, and they helped me," Carlos says, pointing to his teacher, Jessica Barrios, and tutor Don Ketchum, a sports writer for The Republic.

Ketchum was among 35 or so tutors who came to Creighton, week after week, year after year. The kids learned that they could count on them.

"Their love of reading and words was catching," Agneessens says. If they didn't have to go to work, she would have kept them in her school all day.
Teachers could work with struggling readers while more solid readers sat with tutors.

Not only were the tutors trained to help the children with reading, they provided practice in English. Almost all of the children's parents primarily speak Spanish.

And the tutors represented a variety of professions: sales people, computer technicians and writers. The tutors showed the children an array of career choices available to them, Tankersley says.

Maybe most important, the tutors provided the children with a cheering section.

"The children need the encouragement," third-grade teacher Emaretta Hines says. Learning a new language and how to read at the same time is frustrating for them, she says. It would be easy to give up.

Some children did their homework only because they promised Ms. Diana that they would or practiced reading to show off to Mr. Mark.

Over the three years, children also were given books, some paid for by the newspaper and some as gifts from the tutors. For many children, they were their only books. They hugged them to their chests.

Usually, the school can afford only one field trip each year for each class.
But through the partnership, students went to the Desert Botanical Gardens, the Herberger Theater, the Arizona Science Center and other venues.

In first grade, the children all rushed to one side of the bus to gawk at Sky Harbor International Airport on their way to see a play in Tempe. Actors from local theater groups and animals from Sea World were brought to the school gym.

"Anytime you invest time and money in a worthy cause, there will be a benefit, but you may not be able to measure it with test scores," Tankersley says. "The results may not be apparent for many years. How do you know that one of those kids who saw the animals from Sea World doesn't grow up to be a marine biologist? You have no idea what you may have inspired."

The children say they were inspired to read, no matter how many words per minute.

"There are people who care about us," 9-year-old Avigail Morales says. "They helped us learn to read."

Creighton School, by the numbers

1,010 - Students kindergarten through eighth grade.

98 - Percentage of students who qualify for federal reduced-price and free
meal programs.

4 - Number of years without making adequate yearly progress by federal

2 - Number of years Creighton has been labeled a "performing" school by the
Arizona Department of Education, meaning it meets state standards.

Creighton School

What's next for school?

* The 1-2-3 Read partnership with The Arizona Republic will continue, though
it was planned for only three years. Company officials and tutors have seen
the difference they make with children and want to stay, much to the delight
of the principal and teachers.

* Starting next year, some teachers will teach the same students for two
years running. For example, Jessica Barrios will teach second-grade and then
third, staying with the same class. The practice smoothes the transition to
the next grade and prevents lost instructional time as students adjust to a
new teacher and rules.

* Teachers will continue a second year of a new reading program. Students
receive 90 minutes of reading instruction in the morning and, in the
afternoon, an extra 45 minutes of reading instruction, based on their
ability level. Literacy coach Maryann DiRobbio says first- and
second-graders are showing the most dramatic gains.

The same approach to teaching math resulted in significant gains. Sixty-four
percent of third-graders passed the math portion of AIMS in 2005-06, up from
18 percent in 2003-04 and better than the statewide rate of 45 percent.

* Starting next year, the state will require that English-learners receive
four hours a day of intensive English development, including oral language
and vocabulary, nearly double the time most schools devote to it now.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says, "It's to speed up
the process of them becoming proficient in English, so they can begin
learning in English."

Creighton has a good record in this area, with 42 percent of students
proficient enough to pass an oral English test compared with the state rate
of 20 percent.

* Teachers may begin the next year's curriculum after students take the AIMS
to give them an additional six weeks of instruction in the new material
before they take the test again the following year.

CAPTION: A look at Creighton's struggle with reading CAPTION: 1) Creighton
Elementary School third-grader Rachel Rangel listens to teacher Emaretta
Hines. The Phoenix school has been pumping money and resources into
improving its students' reading skills, a challenge for many of Arizona's
schools. 2) Teacher Emaretta Hines and her third-grade students share a
group hug before the final bell on the last day of school before summer. 3)
Jessica Barrios pins a flower that Ashley Camarena (center) made for
Creighton's spring program. Maria Lugo waits her turn. 4) Creighton student
Jose Lugo improvises with a pipe cleaner.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Front
Page: A1

Index Terms: SERIES
Copyright (c) The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the
permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: pho170746636