High-stakes year begins for kids still learning to read

Aug 30, 2022, 9:34 AM | Updated: Aug 31, 2022, 12:11 am

A student rests her hand on her laptop in class at Beecher Hills Elementary School on Friday, Aug. ...

A student rests her hand on her laptop in class at Beecher Hills Elementary School on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

(AP Photo/Ron Harris)

ATLANTA (AP) — Five of the 19 students in teacher Chelsea Grant’s third grade classroom are reading below grade level.

When it’s time to read aloud on a recent Friday, the students show vastly different levels of skill and confidence.

“Remember you read with expression, feeling and fluency,” Grant told her Atlanta students. “I want to feel it.”

Two girls puff up their chests and read like they’re trying out for the school play, while the rest stay seated. Some read slowly and haltingly. Many trip over tricky words – “phosphorescent” and “radiance” – and a few get stuck on simpler ones. Others don’t volunteer at all.

Grant’s students — “my babies” as she calls them — spent the better part of the 2020-2021 school year learning from home. It was first grade, a crucial year for learning to read.

Many are still far behind.

Mounting evidence from around the country shows that students who spent most of the time learning remotely during the 2020-2021 school year, many of them Black and Latino, lost about half of an academic year of learning. That’s twice as much as their peers who studied in person that year.

Third graders are at a particularly delicate moment. This is the year when they must master reading or risk school failure. Everything after third grade will require reading comprehension to learn math, social studies and science. Students who don’t read fluently by the end of third grade are more likely to struggle in the future, and even drop out, studies show.

“Those students are very vulnerable,” said John King Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for improving access to high-quality education for low-income students and students of color.

“You just worry, are kids going to get all they need? If not, there’s the risk of a lost generation of students.”

Atlanta has taken more drastic steps than most other cities to make up for that lost learning. The 50,000-student district was one of the only school systems to extend the school day. Elementary school students attend seven hours of school, half an hour more than before the pandemic.

“We know that part of the best practice (to improve) performance is to have time with students,” said Atlanta Superintendent Lisa Herring in a recent interview. She and her team settled on adding time to the school day because it was one of the only things they could control, she said. They also added summer school seats, but couldn’t require it for most students.

During the extra 30 minutes, students who are behind attend small-group tutoring. If done well, tutoring has a greater impact than most other interventions, studies show.

Grant’s student Malaysia Thomas, 8, attended summer school for reading and math, and now attends small-group tutoring for both subjects. “It’s fun,” Thomas said of tutoring. “But there are all of these big words I can’t read.”

Her mother, Diamond Anderson, interjects: “I have seen her tremendously improve … and I’m grateful for any extra help,” she said.

Brandi Thomas noticed her daughter Drew, who is also in Grant’s class, fell behind during the pandemic. Her daughter wasn’t able to solve problems or answer questions as quickly as most of the other students. And she couldn’t read well. “She was frustrated that she couldn’t keep up. It was hard to watch her struggle,” Thomas said.

Drew wasn’t able to attend summer school because her mother, a single parent and hairdresser, needed to work as many hours as possible during the summer to support her family. But Drew has attended tutoring at school.

Thomas went a step further last year and hired her own tutor for Drew, three times a week.” I just knew it would take a village to get her up to speed,” she said. With that extra help, Drew can now “read backwards and forwards,” said Thomas.

Even with all Atlanta is doing, some experts are wondering if that city, never mind other districts, is doing enough to help students become proficient readers and master other subjects.

Los Angeles added four optional days to this year’s school calendar, added summer school capacity and has left it up to schools to decide how to provide tutoring. New York City created an afterschool program for students with special needs to receive tutoring and other services and plans to reduce class sizes at certain schools. Boston adopted a new approach to teaching children to read, added summer school seats and contracted an online tutoring company for students to use at home.

Evidence from around the country shows that even when schools provide some of these services, such as optional after school tutoring or summer school, many parents aren’t using them.

“I don’t think most school districts have a realistic sense of what it’s actually going to take to make up for the losses,” said Harvard University economist Thomas Kane, who has studied the impact of the pandemic on student learning. He advocates for extending the school year by four to five weeks, for a couple of years, although he admits the idea is politically unpopular.

Atlanta’s plan, which extends the school day and offers tutoring for a total of three years, “would seem to be enough — at least on paper,” Kane wrote in an email. Students would need to attend enough days of summer school, which is often a challenge for districts, and small group tutoring sessions would need to be small with three children or fewer.

He estimates Atlanta students lost a total of 18 weeks of instruction in math and 12 weeks in reading between March 2020 and the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The longer school day and summer school give those kids a little less than six weeks in extra time.

Atlanta school leaders say their testing shows students are making improvements, but wouldn’t say what percentage are seeing growth or whether they’re on track to become proficient.

“There’s clearly some areas where we need to hone in even more,” said Herring. “We’ve got some work to do. … But there is urgency to make up for the disruptions.”

In the meantime, some parents won’t wait and are finding the extra resources on their own. Brandi Thomas says hiring her own tutor for her daughter was the right thing to do.

The other day the mother and daughter were at a stop light, and Drew started reading a billboard advertising a law firm. “She read the words ‘attorney’ and ‘settlement,’ ” Brandi said. “I was like, ‘OK! You can read.’ “

Thomas doesn’t plan to give up the private tutor for her daughter. “I just can’t let her fall behind,” she said.


For more back-to-school coverage, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/back-to-school


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Photo: A delegate wears a hat with pins during the Republican National Convention Monday, July 15, ...

Christine Fernando, Steve People and Jill Colvin, The Associated Press

Rep. Walsh speaks for Washington as cheering GOP delegates nominate Trump for president

Cheering GOP delegates formally nominated Donald Trump for president at Monday's Republican National Convention kickoff.

3 days ago

Photo: Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, right, points toward Republican presidential candidate former Presi...

Jill Colvin, Julie Carr Smyth, Steve Peoples and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

Trump picks Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, a once-fierce critic turned loyal ally, as his GOP running mate

Donald Trump named Sen. JD Vance of Ohio as his running mate, choosing a onetime critic who became a loyal ally.

3 days ago

trump assassination...

Ayanna Alexander, The Associated Press

What to know about Trump assassination attempt and the investigation into the shooting

Authorities want to know how a shooter was able to get on top of a roof so close to where former President Donald Trump was speaking and open fire.

4 days ago

Photo: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surrounded by U.S. Secret...

Julie Carr Smyth, Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker and Michelle L. Price, The Associated Press

Trump heads to convention as authorities investigate motive, security in assassination attempt

Trump called for unity and resilience after an attempt on his life added fresh uncertainty to an already tumultuous presidential campaign.

4 days ago

Photo: President Joe Biden speaks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday,...

Will Weissert and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

In primetime address, Biden says country must not go down road of political violence

President Joe Biden says “we can’t, we must not go down” the road of political violence in America after the attempted Trump assassination.

4 days ago

Photo: President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference following the NATO Summit in Washington, Thu...

Zeke Miller, Seung Min Kim, Lisa Mascaro and Colleen Long, The Associated Press

Biden says during news conference he’s going to ‘complete the job’ despite calls to bow out

Biden used his highly anticipated news conference to deliver a defense of his policies and batted away questions about his ability to serve.

7 days ago

High-stakes year begins for kids still learning to read