Mesa kids learn to put reading first
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 18, 2005
JJ Hensley
Student scores on reading assessments have improved dramatically at one of the first Mesa elementary schools to implement the federally funded Reading First program.

Less than 25 percent of 148 first-graders met the benchmark on a national reading test at Lowell Elementary School last year, and nearly half the students needed intensive instruction. This year, about half the students met the benchmark as second-graders.

Administrators and teachers in the state's largest school district credit much of the improvement to Reading First.

The program provides federal dollars for schools with low-income students who have low test scores and allows teachers to give young elementary school students 90 minutes of intensive reading instruction each day. Staff members can increase that instruction time by an additional hour for those students who need it most.

That might sound like a lot of time to spend on one subject - it's nearly half the school day - but teachers like Patty Henry say the commitment is worth it. The 19-year Lowell veteran can see the improvement in her second-grade class.

"It's what these kids at this type of school need because the reading they get is here," Henry said.

More than 90 percent of Lowell's students are Hispanic, and many have parents who don't speak English, which makes reading at home difficult, Henry said.

"When it has to happen at school, we need to put more time into it," she said.

That time has paid off, according to student performance on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills test. It's still a work in progress, school reading coach Renee Parker stressed, but the program is moving students in the right direction to succeed on yearly assessments and ultimately on the AIMS test.

Parker's salary, along with those of five other reading coaches in the Mesa Public Schools, is funded through the nearly $3.25 million the district received as part of a three-year grant. Lowell is one of 64 Valley schools participating. Each of the six Reading First schools in Mesa received more than $500,000 to hire staff, said Kathy Savage, the district's basic skills coordinator. Though the grant funding disappears after the 2005-06 school year, administrators are confident those positions could be funded at the district or state level.

That's good news for parents like Cynthia Belmontes, who has a daughter in fifth grade and a son in second grade at Lowell.

"Before this program, they really didn't want to read a lot of books at home," she said. "But now that everybody's doing it, they're much more into books."