Detroit teacher Jan DeRossett, with first-grader Markita Gaines, is training to be a Reading Recovery leader. (Photos by Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Markita Gaines showed up for first grade unable to read or write. She didn’t know certain letters of the alphabet and she didn’t recognize her written name.
Markita isn’t alone. Educators say the 6-year-old is one of thousands of children in Michigan who need immediate intervention to reverse “literacy failure” in children who have extreme difficulty learning to read or write.
But she is among the luckier ones getting help from Reading Recovery, an accelerated literacy program that gives first-graders intensive, one-on-one lessons with a specially trained teacher.
After 16 weeks in the program, Markita is reading aloud to her teacher inside Coleman A. Young Elementary School, identifying letters on a whiteboard and writing her own stories. The program has turned the once quiet student into a spunky, bubbly chatterbox.
“We like ice cream in the car,” she reads to her teacher, pointing to each word with her finger as she moves across the page. “No more ice cream. We feel ill.”
This year, Detroit Public Schools has sent 29 of its teachers into training at Oakland University’s Reading Recovery Center, where they will become certified Reading Recovery teachers.
These teachers are employed in 16 of the district’s highest priority schools, and their training is being funded with part of a five-year, $48 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Under the grant, Oakland University is receiving $4 million from 2010-15 to train 250 certified teachers in Michigan schools.
The need for literacy programs is great in Detroit and across the state, school officials said. A recent national test found that only 7 percent of Detroit’s fourth-graders tested proficient in reading. Statewide, as many as 34 percent, or 37,750, of Michigan’s third-graders weren’t proficient in reading on last year’s Michigan Educational Assessment Program.
“These are the kids that, without an early intervention, they are guaranteed to fail,” said Mary Lose, director of Reading Recovery Center of Michigan and an associate professor of education at Oakland University. “We have the best chance of making a difference when we get them early.”
Regardless of poverty or affluence, children who cannot read or write are in every first-grade classroom. Proficiency rates vary in Michigan, but even affluent districts such as Troy, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester and Birmingham are using Reading Recovery to reach their bottom 20 percent of performers.
Students selected for the program meet with their Reading Recovery teacher for a 30-minute lesson each day for an average of 15-20 weeks, with the length of the program based on each student’s progress.
The teacher must constantly reassess each child and increase the rigor of instruction until the student reaches grade-level reading.
Laurie McCarty, assistant superintendent of learning services in the Bloomfield Hills School District, said the program has produced results. About 55 students are in the program every year, she said.
“As you see them grow day after day, the confidence is built and success is there. The teachers are trained to meet the student where they are. There is a connection with the home because books are sent home every night,” McCarty said. “When a student is discontinued after 15 weeks, our hope is they are in the middle of the class they are going back into and they can be there without the support.”
From DPS, Jan DeRossett and Nicola Turner are training to become certified Reading Recovery teacher leaders. The pair were selected to take part in a rigorous, yearlong program that involves one-on-one teaching sessions with first-graders. When the pair complete their training in June, they will train more Reading Recovery teachers for Detroit Public Schools this fall, school officials said.
Lansing taking notice
Illiteracy among schoolchildren is drawing attention in Lansing, too. State lawmakers are debating legislation to hold back all third-graders who aren’t proficient in reading; action on the House floor could begin this month.
Lawmakers also are considering House Bill 5144, which would require state education officials to develop early intervention programs to help struggling students in grades K-3. The two measures are tie-barred, meaning both must be passed for either to take effect.
“The third grade reading initiative left over from last year is near the top of the docket for the House as it starts to work on legislation,” said Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger. “I expect you could see some action on the House floor within the next few weeks.”
But the definition of being able to read needs to be widened, said Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language and culture at the University of Michigan. She said it should include comprehension and the ability to learn from a text.
“It’s much more than reading in a book. A lot of time, people say kids should read by third grade,” Duke said. “The reality is the vast majority can decode by third grade. When they are doing badly on assessments like the MEAP, it’s that they can’t comprehend the text. Many read words beautifully, but they can’t understand a thing they are reading.”
Reading Recovery training costs about $11,000 per teacher, Lose said, which the grant covers. Most district would need to find money in their own budgets to continue the program or use other grants to pay for teacher training after the federal grant expires in 2015.
The program’s success is well documented, educators say.
Need outpaces outreach
In the 2012-13 school year, 2,170 students in 179 schools in 71 districts were taught by 261 teachers trained in Reading Recovery. Of the 1,726 students who received a full intervention — about 20 weeks in the program — 72 percent reached their grade level. About 28 percent needed further support.
Yet Michigan is still far from giving Reading Recovery to all the children who need it, Lose said. She estimates that 21,000 first-graders in Michigan — the bottom 20 percent of performers — could benefit from the program.
Carol Sue Englert, a professor of special education at MSU, agrees but says preparing children to read begins at home and in preschool.
“It’s exposure to literacy. Playing language games at home, nursery rhymes,” Englert said. “All of that is developing language and knowledge, which really does translate into words. That is a predictor of reading achievement in fourth grade.”