June 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

With state test scores floundering, reading could be a lifeboat in Hamtramck

Third-grader Tracey Taylor uses tiles to make words during a Beyond Basics tutoring session last year at Thirkell Elementary in Detroit. Beyond Basics' president says the group hopes to work with Project Hamtramck. (Paulette Bolofer / Special to The Detroit News)

A child is struggling in a swift river and a man jumps in and saves him.

Not long afterward, two more children come floating past. The man jumps back in, but can only save one.

You can read and reason, so you recognize the story Christopher Webb is telling as a parable. In the story, as the man is girding himself in case he needs to leap again, someone older and more astute makes a suggestion.

“Why not go upriver,” the wise man says, “and find out why they’re falling in in the first place?”

Webb is not concerned with rivers, or for that matter swimming.

He is worried about education, specifically reading. And he wants to save them all.

Webb is a lawyer by trade, not an English teacher. He’s the director of the ESD Institute, and the members of the Engineering Society of Detroit are not English teachers, either.

“The big thing you hear is STEM, STEM, STEM,” Webb says. Science, technology, engineering, math. The future.

But nonreaders and slow readers don’t design rockets or bridges or ever-smarter phones.

“If we haven’t established the desire to read, we’re always cherry-picking the best 10 percent,” he says.

We’re wasting potential.

The ESD Institute’s solution:

Project Hamtramck.

It could revolutionize education. Or not; we’ve seen plenty of failed revolutions before.

But at least somebody is trying.

Playing from behind

Project Hamtramck is an approach, not a program. It’s a deliberately inclusive, district-wide campaign to install a proven curriculum the participants will select together.

As befits the ESD Institute, the action arm of an engineering group, the project evolved from numbers.

According to 2013 MEAP results, only 35 percent of eighth-graders in Southeast Michigan are reading at or above grade level. That’s a bleak number. For fourth-graders in Detroit, the figure is 7 percent. That’s a ghastly one.

One more number: $40,000. That’s the estimate of the eventual cost per child — in social services, mental health care or incarceration — for third-graders who fall behind.

“Take a kid in third or fourth grade who can’t read and is just being moved along,” Webb says. “They’ll move from there to shame or misbehavior. Then we’re always playing catch-up.”

Creating a united front

Project Hamtramck is designed to take the lead — or rather, to let the stakeholders take the lead.

That means teachers, administrators, unions and community officials. For two years, Webb says, he’s been working with all of them, getting them to unite before they all help select a specific program at a three-day meeting in August.

With 3,000 students from a smorgasbord of ethnic and economic backgrounds, Hamtramck is the ideal test lab for an effort designed to be repeatable there and replicable anywhere.

Plenty of reading programs have shown solid results, Webb says. The trick is to get universal, sustained support for one of them.

After that, the theory goes, the dominoes will start falling: improved performance leading to result-based grants leading to continued gains and a model for the rest of the region.

Best case, the project won’t launch until January. It could well be fermenting until the following September.

Word is already spreading, though, among literacy nonprofits like Beyond Basics, which has been boosting scores and improving outlooks for disadvantaged kids since 2002. President Pamela Good says she has written a proposal to the ESD Institute, hoping to take part.

“Without reading,” Good says, “you can’t budge those ACT scores. You can’t budge those MEAPs.”

You can get stuck before you even get started.

Studies show that third-graders reading at grade level will keep pace. But if they fall behind, they’ll lag everywhere — not just in reading, but in vocabulary and every other subject in which reading plays a role, which is virtually all of them.

It’s harrowing to think that kids can start drowning when they’re only 8 or 9 years old. You have to root for anybody who jumps in and tries to pull them to shore.

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