Just 49 percent of third graders in Kansas City are reading proficiently.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that’s a dramatic improvement from just a few years ago, when only a third of them were reading at or above grade level. As research mounts that third grade is a benchmark for future success, literacy has become a rally cry for elected leaders and community groups trying to turn around Kansas City’s public schools.
At Garfield Elementary in the Historic Northeast, AmeriCorps volunteers meet daily with reluctant third grade readers.
“‘How far is it from earth to a star?’” a tutor reads. “‘You probably think you could use miles for that. But it would be millions and millions of miles.’”
Then it’s the student’s turn.
“All the words were right,” the tutor tells her charge. “You had great expression and great speed.”
For struggling readers, the path to high school graduation is often long and arduous. According to the American Education Research Association, the warning signs that a child won’t graduate can appear as early as third grade. As many as one in four low-income students who aren’t reading on grade level by age 8 won’t graduate by 18.
Compare that to just 2 percent of good readers whose families don’t experience poverty.
Too many kids who are behind
These tutors are part of the Missouri Reading Corps. They spend 20 minutes with each child and see as many as 20 students a day.
Carrie Button is a reading coach whose job includes supervising the tutors.
“The tutor would point to the letter and say the sound, and point to the letter and say the sound,” says Button, the teaching methods coach at Garfield.
The tutors help the students pronounce words and count syllables. They read aloud with the kids to help them with pacing and inflection.
“Honestly, we don’t have a replacement for them,” Button says. “Without Reading Corps, a lot of our students wouldn’t be getting these extra attention they need to be able to get on grade level.”
That’s because there are just so many kids who are behind. KCPS uses a three-tiered system to describe reading proficiency. The first group is on track. The second group is a little bit further behind. Button admits most of a teacher’s attention goes to the third group, the students who are struggling the most.
“Truthfully, especially this group of students that fall in the middle kind of get left out,” Button says.
They’re not strong enough readers to keep up with the class. But they’re not far enough behind to trigger the most intensive interventions.
Zeroing in on kindergarten readiness
That’s why schools are increasingly reliant on outside programs to provide additional help.
“We focus on third grade reading because until third grade, kids are learning to read,” says Mike English, executive director of Turn the Page KC. “Afterwards you need to read to learn anything else.”
Mayor Sly James started Turn the Page KC in 2011 after learning about the importance of getting students reading in third grade at a conference of mayors. Today, the organization is a nonprofit with an independent board. Turn the Page KC has a very specific idea of what success looks like: by 2017, have more than 70 percent of Kansas City third graders scoring at or above proficient on state tests.
That would put urban elementary schools on par with wealthier suburban districts such as Liberty, Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs. And it’d be a major win for a metro area where many students go to school without knowing basic skills.
“Every parent says, ‘Oh, look at him, he’s so smart, he’s picking up so much, they’re like little sponges,’” says James. “So we have these little sponges, and we keep them dry. We don’t keep moist with information, moist with words, moist with contact.”
Third grade reading is having a national moment. But to James’ point, struggling readers fail long before they ever take a standardized test. They’re talked to less at home. They eat less nutritious food.
That’s why James would like to see the conversation shift to kindergarten readiness.
“What we really ought to be doing is making sure when mothers go to the hospital and say, ‘I’m pregnant,’ that start getting information, support and guidance from that point forward,” James says. “What kind of music are you listening to while you’re pregnant? What are you eating while you’re pregnant?”
Still, universal pre-K isn’t universally supported. Very early childhood education – from birth to age 2 – will be an even harder sell.
And James is keenly aware that he won’t always be in office to advocate for the city’s schools.
“The things we should establish should live on without us, one way or the other,” James says. “If they have value, then they’ll have value with or without me being engaged.”
Helping kids catch up
Back at Garfield Elementary, third grader San’Tanaa Parker is wrapping up her tutoring session with Lizzie McCollom. They’re reading a passage about Jane Goodall, but the word “chimp” keeps tripping San’Tanaa up.
She smacks a palm to her forehead. “Sorry,” San’Tanaa says.
McCollom is encouraging. “It’s OK.” She reads, “‘Jane is still learning about chimps. She teaches us about them too.’”
San’Tanaa asks if Goodall is a scientist. McCollom nods.
“I’m going to look up her,” San’Tanaa declares.
San’Tanaa’s teacher, Katie Kever, is a first-year educator. In her class of 25, just four students are reading at grade level. Five of her struggling readers participate in the AmeriCorps program.
“They seem more confident when they’re reading,” Kever says. “They’re my volunteers. They’re always raising their hand to read in class.”
The daily interventions seem to be working. One student at Garfield doesn’t need daily tutoring anymore because she caught up with her class. That means another kid gets that much-needed extra help.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.