Reading project shows kids still struggling to meet grade standards
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 11, 2006

Karina Bland 

Two years into a three-year project to improve reading skills in a Phoenix school, the children are floundering, heading into third grade reading below grade level. The situation is not unique to that school.

Across Arizona, schoolchildren struggle to overcome language barriers and the influences of poverty, pivotal factors that place the state near the bottom of the nation in reading. Even additional resources and tutoring don't seem enough to overcome those obstacles.

To look for ways to raise reading scores, The Arizona Republic launched a partnership with Phoenix's Creighton Elementary School in 2004. The Republic pledged $120,000 in grants over three years for reading specialists, books and teacher training. Volunteers from the newspaper also signed up to tutor students, logging more than 1,130 hours in five classrooms over the first two years of the project.

The goal is to get the students reading at third-grade level by the end of next school year. If the extra attention works at Creighton, the hope is it could work at other schools.

But so far, the results are sobering. Only 19 of the 119 students who just finished second grade are reading at grade level. An additional 21 score near grade level.

Just before school lets out for the summer, second-grader Irvin Moreno scores at the third-grade level on a reading test. His teacher, Jill Browne, says, "Wow! Maybe I should send you to third grade right now."

Irvin, 8, walks stiff-legged to the door, his buddies pushing at his back and laughing. Sadly, Irvin is one of only three children in Browne's class of 24 who reads well enough to tackle third-grade material.

Students are expected to read by the end of second grade. Yet that is not happening at Creighton or at many other Arizona schools. There is a problem nationwide, in fact.

Last spring, 28 percent of Arizona third-graders who are proficient in English failed the reading portion of AIMS, or Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. Among English-language learners, the failure rate was 73 percent. Only 24 percent of Arizona's fourth-graders are considered proficient in reading, compared with 31 percent nationally. Even with the additional resources and extra tutoring from The Republic, Creighton students, like other second-graders statewide, are running out of time to learn to read. If children haven't learned to read by the end of the third grade, they'll likely never catch up.

Obstacles they face

Many of Arizona's young students 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 majority of children who struggle to learn to read are poor, without shelves full of books at home or the life experiences most 8-year-olds take for granted. Many start school speaking only Spanish, and their language skills, even in their own language, are more like those of toddlers than 5-year-olds.

In the project to find ways to improve reading skills, Creighton students matched the profile of students who struggle to read:

Of the more than 1,100 students at the central Phoenix school, 95 percent
qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

The majority of the students, 95 percent, are Hispanic.

Ninety percent are learning to speak English.

Almost half of the students who start the school year at Creighton will be
gone by its end. Seven of Browne's two-dozen students moved away this year,
replaced by children newly arrived from Mexico who spoke little or no

Kids can't learn if they don't stay in one place long enough, and they lose
ground academically with each move, says Karen Tankersley, a Glendale
reading consultant and former inner-city superintendent. The most skilled
readers are the students who have been at Creighton since kindergarten.

Any combination of poverty, limited English skills and a high mobility rate
can be devastating. Half of Creighton students eventually drop out of high
school, in part because they struggle with reading, fueling the state's
dismal dropout rate.

Hope in third grade

All year, Browne frankly tells her students that they are far behind in
reading but that they are smart enough to catch up. Each child has a
progress chart, with a target high in the right upper corner.

"You have to be way up here," she tells them, tracing the lines she draws as
their reading improves and knowing that they won't all get there before
school lets out for the summer.

Still, there is hope that the students at Creighton could be reading like
they should be by the end of third grade.

Next year, the children will use a new reading program by Houghton Mifflin
that includes specific strategies for struggling readers, and there is more
emphasis on non-fiction. Most importantly, they'll spend more time reading.

Also, for the first time, some will learn to read in their native language.
More than half of Browne's students tested proficient enough in English to
qualify for the school's long-standing dual-language program in third grade,
meaning they will be in a classroom where they are taught in both English
and Spanish. Research shows children in dual-language programs pick up
reading quickly.

There also is hope because the children are determined to read. Many are
from immigrant families, and their parents push them to learn English and
get an education.

When Browne says it's time to read, her students rush the bookshelves at the
back of the classroom.

Ruth Salgado, 8, curls up on the floor with a copy of Junie B. Jones, First
Grader, Cheater Pants by Barbara Park. She enjoys it more when Browne reads
to the class, acting out the words the kids don't understand or drawing them
on the whiteboard.

"I like to read Junie B., but it's hard for me," Ruth says. But next year in
third grade, she says, "I will read Junie B. all by myself."

Browne believes Ruth could be reading Junie B. Jones books on her own by the
end of third grade with the help of the school's new, more rigorous approach
to reading.

"What we're doing now isn't working," Principal Rosemary Agneessens says.
"We have to do something different."

Across the state, schools are under pressure from state and federal
education officials to raise test scores. Like the project at Creighton,
they are trying all sorts of tactics to get kids reading: extra time, new
reading programs, reading specialists, tutoring.

It's the additional 45 minutes a day that Creighton kids will spend in third
grade in reading, grouped in small classes by ability, that should make the
biggest difference.

This year, the same approach to teaching math - more time in small classes,
with students grouped by ability - resulted in significant gains.
Fifty-seven percent of Creighton third-graders passed the math portion of
AIMS in 2004-05, up from 18 percent in 2003-04 and even better than the
statewide rate of 43 percent.

By teaching in small groups, Browne says, teachers can target instruction to
each child's weakness. Children who catch on quickly can move up, from group
to group, as their skills improve.

The more time children spend reading, the better, Tankersley says. "Reading
is a skill, and like any new skill, children need to practice to get

There is even greater hope for kids who go into dual-language classes at
this critical juncture. Browne expects that, with half of instruction in
their native language, her students could make up the academic ground
they've lost as they have struggled to learn English.

Teachers with classes full of English-language learners say it's the best
way to teach these children in both languages, but Arizona law doesn't allow
teachers to teach in any language other than English.

Schools can offer dual-language classes but only if students already are
proficient in English. It took until second grade for 15 of Browne's
students to test proficient in English to qualify.

Christian Barrera, 8, will be in dual language next year. He says, "My mom
wants me to go."

Parents often favor dual language because it maintains their children's
literacy in both languages and, when parents don't speak English, allows
them to help with the homework that comes home in Spanish.

Last day of 2nd grade

On the last day of second grade, the children talk about what they liked
best about second grade: field trips to the Desert Botanical Garden and
Herberger Theatre, their student teacher, raising butterflies, and Junie B.
Jones books.

The kids are wild with excitement for summer to begin. One girl scribbles on
another girl's nametag. The boys can't stay in their seats. One chews on an

"I do not want to do the Heimlich maneuver today, Jose Felix, please take
that out of your mouth," Browne tells one boy.

This year, Browne's students, like all 180,000 second-graders in Arizona,
faced some of the toughest material of their academic lives. In second
grade, students study life cycles in science and, in math, learn to add and
subtract two- and three-digit numbers and even do multiplication. For some,
picture books gave way to books with chapters.

The first day of second grade, Browne says, "you were so little, I was
afraid you would get lost; now look at how big you are."

They all sit a little taller.

"You all got too big and too smart for me, so I have to send you all to
third grade," she says. "I'm going to miss you all."

Browne hands out certificates declaring each child's promotion to the third

"Really?" asks Esteban Ramos, 9, holding his certificate.


In third grade, the children will be expected to break from learning to read
and begin reading to learn. They will be expected to learn as much
information from textbooks as they do from teachers.

Students who can't read at grade level will struggle in social studies,
science and math. Third-grade teachers will have to review material the
students should have picked up in second grade. Like all third-graders,
they'll take AIMS in reading, writing and math for the first time.

When it's time to go, the children pull on their backpacks and push in their
chairs for the last time. Jose Melchor Lugo promises to visit Browne next
year. He says, "I'm going to bring you flowers."

Even on this last day, Ruth stays after the bell to help Browne tidy up. She
straightens books on the shelves and erases the board.

Ruth is not happy about leaving the safety of second grade. But she wants to
read Junie B. Jones on her own. And she wants to be a doctor, she says, so
she'll go.