Sparta Area Schools, MI —
Ten-year-old Erika Bradford knows how important it is to find ways to make reading easier.
"I think the reason kids don't like any subject is because they are struggling with it," Erika said. "I used to hate reading and I was super bad at it."
Erika had an "incredible vocabulary, but she wasn't reading well at all," said her mother, Kristin Bradford. But while Bradford recognized her daughter's struggle in reading, she found it nearly impossible to work with her.
Erika recalled, "I just needed to figure it out myself." Added Mom, "I didn't know how to help her. We were clearly getting nowhere at home."
Results of reading testing at Ridgeview Elementary qualified Erika for Title I reading assistance. Students identified as deficient in a core subject are entitled under United States Department of Education guidelines to receive help from reading specialists.
The Title 1 grant is federally funded and meant to assure that all students get equal help when tests show a deficiency.
Sparta uses funding from several funding sources to provide reading services to students. "Some of our staff is funded just through federal funding, while others are funded with a combination of state funding, federal funding, and/or general budget funding," said Deb Dufour, director of Title Programs & Grants for the district.
Erika was pulled from her regular classroom for reading remediation, and Title 1 teacher Kathy Hartuniewicz -- "Mrs. Hart" to Erika and other students -- worked with her after school when she needed it. Erika spent a little over six weeks in the program while she was in first grade.
The Road to Reading series, proudly sponsored by the Grand Rapids Public Library, explores some of the reading activities you'll find in our schools as well as difficulties students may face when learning to read.
The series also examines early childhood ties to literacy and new initiatives to help all children read.
Experts Get Results
Today -- in fifth grade -- Erika tests above her grade level in reading and still uses some of the strategies that she learned from the reading specialists.
"Whenever I read something, I stop at the end of the chapter and think 'What was it about?' and write it on a sticky note," she said. "And then when I get to the end of the book, I reread all the sticky notes before I take the AR (Accelerated Reading) test."
"I couldn't help her, but they could," her mother said. "They are experts at what they do. They know what to look for."
Being able to read well is essential to future success in education, according to Ridgeview Principal Marialyce Zeerip.
"The major predictor of academic success is the amount of time that a student spends reading," Zeerip said. "And not just academic success. The research is clear: High levels of leisure reading and reading proficiency are associated with greater academic, financial and professional benefit."
Getting Ahead of Mandates
The Sparta district has long recognized the need to enhance every child's ability to read well, and has embraced "universal assessment," according to Zeerip.
"Sparta does a particularly good job on this," she said. "Three times a year every child receives a personal assessment." The testing takes place in September, January and again in May.
Nearly every teacher gets involved. Substitute teachers are retained as classroom teachers work one-on-one with each student to determine whether a child needs extra help from the experts in either reading or math.
Universal testing at this point is optional under state standards, but has been the practice in Sparta for as many as 15 years, according to Zeerip.
"This will be the standard as part of the new state mandates, but luckily we have this and a lot of things already in place," said Title I teacher Hartuniewicz.
Beginning next year, K-3 students must be tested three times a year, and students with reading deficiencies must be given an Individual Reading Plan, according to the Third Grade Reading Bill, signed into law by Governor Snyder a year ago.
When Title I programs first came to the district, the "experts" would go door-to-door in the classrooms to see if anyone needed some extra help. Now, said Hartuniewicz, "This testing is so important."
The Title I teachers oversee the testing and set individual programs for the students who fall below classroom standards.
For some -- like Erika -- it is a matter of identifying the factors that are contributing to making reading difficult. For others, it results in setting up a comprehensive one-on-one tutoring program for any number of years.
Tackling Reading Year-round
The district encourages reading in other ways. Two years ago a mobile library program known as Books on the Run was made possible by a grant from the Sparta Education Foundation, as well as multiple donations from the community. The library on wheels brings books to children throughout the summer months.
"Becoming a proficient reader impacts every aspect of a child's life," Zeerip said. "Recognizing that some students will need more support than others, we embrace quality assessment practices, to help us understand who is most needing reading intervention."
"The advantages that this program gave my daughter are huge," said Kristin Bradford, Erika's mom.
"I wish the Title I program was for all kids at all levels," she added. "In my opinion, every single child should have the benefit of working with the experts."
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