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Children Reading Below Grade Level More Likely to Struggle, Drop-out

Nov. 19, 2009

The 2nd annual Greater Waco Education Summit gets down to business today, focusing on on key areas of youth development and examining the role that various community groups can play in advancing the educational environment. One major area of focus for educators is reading development. And teachers in Waco, spurred by renewed emphasis from the summit and the Greater Waco Education Alliance, are focusing on helping students read at grade level by the time they're 8 years old.

These are students in Gayla Reid's first grade class at Waco ISD's Hillcrest Professional Development School. They're sounding out letters and looking for patterns in the words they see. And studies show that if they don't master these skills in the next two years, they're unlikely to experience a great deal of success in the subsequent ten years through high school. That info comes from studies and is a key assumption of the Greater Waco Education Alliance. It says that if we don't have our kids reading at or above their grade-level by grade number three, they'll be playing catch-up for the rest of their school career.

Dr. Cyndi Hernandez is the assistant director for educational research and outreach with Baylor University's CASPER program. Her background is in education and child development, and she runs reading tutoring programs for Waco ISD. She'll be presenting at breakout sessions at this year's Greater Waco Education Summit, focusing on the need to have students reading at grade-level by age 8. There are a number of reasons this is the case, and number of studies that show you can predict the future of students fairly accurately by determining their reading level in third grade. One figure is particularly striking, notes Dr. Hernandez.

Because they start reading to learn in earnest in third grade, they'll fall behind quickly if they're reading at a 2nd grade level or below. The numbers are not in Waco's favor, as there are correlations between poverty and reading problems. Fifteen elementary schools in Waco have poverty rates of 80 percent or higher, and half of those students begin school without basic communication skills appropriate to their age. So it's important that educators in Waco and beyond find a way to get them up to speed quickly, setting a firm foundation in kindergarten, and first and second grades, otherwise....

Gayla Reid is working with one of her first graders at Hillcrest, recognizing long and short vowel sounds based on pictures of various objects, like the number nine, tires, or fire. She's working in very small groups of students, with help from assistants in the large class. In some cases, she's working with the students individually. It's a tiered structure to make sure that no student falls behind their classmates in reading. It's what they call one of the "best practices," proven strategies to help students learn.

It's designed to help them do more than recognize words on a page. They're helping students look for patterns in words that will unlock their understanding of phonics, rhymes, and sounds.

In addition to working in these small groups and looking at cards, she's having them get physically involved. Bending, pointing, and using their bodies as well as their minds to make it more memorable. These activities, as well as some standardized state tests, help them discover who needs additional help. For Gayla Reid, first grade is really the front line in a battle against illiteracy in the state, and with the renewed focus on this issue from the Greater Waco Education Alliance, she and fellow teachers are more aware than ever of the phrase used by Cyndi Hernandez: that by third grade, their students are reading to learn, and should have already learned to read. If not:

This is just one of a number of areas that are the focus of the Greater Waco Education Alliance, and its 2nd annual summit taking place today and tomorrow. Members of a number of community stakeholders are coming together to determine who parents, the business community, religious groups, and more can work together to insure that the area's students learn and are competitive with their peers nationwide. You can see pictures and find a link to the Summit's 2009 program, as well as background information, online at KWBU.org. For KWBU news, I'm Derek Smith.

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