Oakland joins nation-wide initiative to increase student reading proficiency levels by 2020

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Hannah Broido writes “ch” on her mini-whiteboard in large, neat letters, using a green dry erase marker. Sounding out the consonants with her first grade mentee, or “scholar,” who also happens to be named Hannah, she then wipes the letters off the board and follows them with a succession of words that all contain the “ch” sound, from “sketch” to “catch” to “bench.” She is preparing her student from Oakland’s Sankofa Academy to read Chad is the Champ, a book featuring this sound.

Broido tutors with an organization called Reading Partners, a group that advances child literacy by partnering with elementary schools across the nation and, in particular, at 30 sites in the Bay Area. Broido, a UC Berkeley student in her third year with the program, said her favorite part is seeing the progress of her mentees. “The first two years I worked with the same kids, and now I’m following the same ones,” she said. “Just getting to see that progress. And also, they open up to you.”

Reading Partners is just one organization that works to advance literacy in Oakland. Dozens of others promote the same cause, and they are connected by a larger umbrella organization called the Oakland Literacy Coalition (OLC). The coalition launched in 2008, and is a project of the Rogers Family Foundation, a private group that supports education in Oakland. “The foundation was funding a lot of literacy organizations, and quickly realized that there was no formal structure in place for those organizations to come together and collaborate,” said Christina Johnson, program associate for the coalition and literacy program associate at the Rogers Family Foundation.

They believe their work is crucial in Oakland elementary schools because the literacy rate is very low. In Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), only 42 percent of third graders are reading at their grade level, according to the Oakland Reads 2020 Baseline Report.

Oakland is not alone in these numbers. According to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders and four-fifths of those from low-income families are not reading proficiently nationwide. Oakland has joined 130 other communities nationwide that aim to increase reading proficiency levels by 2020; its specific initiative called the Oakland Reads 2020 campaign.

The Oakland Reads 2020 Baseline Report, a study conducted by the Urban Strategies Council that analyzed OUSD data from 2010-2013, identified an achievement gap based on race, ethnicity and gender, with third grade Latino and African American boys scoring lower than other groups. “Only eight percent of third grade English Learners became proficient by the end of the year in 2012–13. More than half of Latino students and more than one-third of Asian students are English Learners,” the report’s authors concluded. And, according to the report, 30 percent of OUSD students are English Language Learners.

The study also noted several salient factors affecting literacy. Among them, almost three-quarters of students within OUSD qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of a family’s socioeconomic status—students who come from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have access to resources and academic opportunities than their more affluent peers.

Overall, the coalition members believe four main factors contribute to literacy levels: school readiness, school attendance, summer learning, and family engagement, which means that parents are actively involved in their children’s education and emphasize the importance of reading.

Johnson particularly pointed to health-related absences as a factor in low literacy, and noted that many students suffer from asthma as a result of the high levels of pollution in their neighborhoods. “Asthma’s one of the biggest causes for absences, and so, if someone doesn’t have access to high-quality medical care, and is suffering from a chronic condition like asthma, we know that can play a lot into their poor attendance,” she said. “Another thing can be dental infections, which you wouldn’t think would be a big deal for attendance, but it actually is one of the main causes for students to miss school—or if they’re in school, to be distracted because they’re in pain.”

According to the Oakland Reads report, 11 percent of students in kindergarten through third grade were “chronically absent,” which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. Another 23 percent were considered “at risk,” which means missing five percent to nine percent of schools days.

Summer learning was also a big factor in students’ academics, Johnson said. “We know that low-income students are more likely over the summer to just sit home, or—they’re doing nothing while their more affluent peers would be more likely to go into an enrichment program,” she said. “And so the low-income student’s more likely to lose ground over summer, and fall even further behind.”

Parent engagement is crucial “just for students to know that reading is important and something that we should all be doing every day,” said Johnson. Because the coalition firmly believes that parent engagement is an essential component to student success, they encourage parents to volunteer in classrooms or chaperone their children’s field trips, even if these events are not associated with literacy organizations.

Brittany Love, a volunteer coordinator within the OUSD who works in the Family and Community Engagement Office, furthers this idea of parent engagement by pushing parents to be leaders in their schools. Parental roles vary from behavior managers in the classroom to literacy program volunteers to new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) positions within the district. “In my team they build parent leaders, have workshops, really try to make it so schools are a place where parents have a voice,” said Love. “And they know that they’re embraced and that they’re part of the decision-making at the school.”

Another factor that has been a big push for OUSD is simply the amount of time that students spend reading. Dr. Devin Dillon, Chief Academic Officer of OUSD, said that while the district can not control the amount of time students spend reading outside of school, they are trying to increase how much time they spend reading in the classroom through engaging them in literature and through improving student access to books.

In addition, she hopes to expand the definition of teaching “literacy” to students to include teaching “language,” or vocabulary and verbal expression. “We’re all teachers of language,” said Dillon. “Because we recognize that kids come in as English Language Learners, but also kids from poverty come with a million-word deficit into school.” Dillon is referring to a study conducted by two University of Kansas researchers that found that by the age of 3, children from high-income families have heard and experienced 30 million words more than children from low-income families. 

The Oakland Reads 2020 campaign aims to double the percentage of third grade students in the district reading at grade level to 85 percent by the year 2020. Why is third grade such a pivotal year? OLC coordinators cite a 2012 study called Double Jeopardy, which was conducted by Donald Hernandez, a sociology professor from Hunter College and the City University of New York, in association with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It followed 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989. The study found that students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely not to graduate high school than their peers who are proficient readers. Third grade is a pivotal year for student literacy because after this point, students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” other subjects. Fourth grade students are expected to be able to analyze texts and apply them in all their classes.

But from kindergarten until third grade, students are learning the foundational skills, like sounding out phonics or identifying sight words, that will allow them to read fluently, said Cassie Perham, the OLC program manager. “Once they go into fourth grade, they need to be able to read in order to learn more advanced subjects, be able to do math word problems, or access a science lesson,” she said. “Or study their history, or whatever it might be. You have that shift of learning to read, to reading in order to learn.”

“Students that aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade, are statistically more likely to have trouble in the rest of their school education, statistically more likely to drop out or fall behind, have trouble catching up, and learning the rest of the subject matter,” Johnson agreed.

The Double Jeopardy study particularly focuses on how students growing up in low-income communities are affected by the literacy problems that have become apparent by the time they reach third grade. “The combined effect of reading poorly and living in poverty puts these children in double jeopardy,” the study states, meaning jeopardy of dropping out of school and failing to graduate.

But members of the OLC are heartened by recent improvements in reading scores they have seen since the coalition was established. In 2014, 36 percent of OUSD students scored proficient or advanced on the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), an assessment of whether students are reading at grade level or not. In 2015, that percentage increased to 42.8 percent.

“After years of scores either slipping or holding steady to seeing these really dramatic improvements” was really terrific, said Perham. She noted too that after disaggregating the data to look at different student demographics, African American students’ scores had increased by 10 percent.

The Oakland Literacy Coalition now consists of approximately 60 organizations that are all working to improve literacy among Oakland students. Many of them, like Reading Partners, pair volunteers with students at school sites during the school day and during after-school programs. This program was founded 16 years ago at Belle Haven Elementary School in East Menlo Park, California. After initially serving only one school, said Michelle Torgenson, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Reading Partners, “We’re here today, 16 years later, a national organization, and we serve 200 elementary school partners, 11,000 students across the country. And we are in 13 different metropolitan areas.”

At the Sankofa Academy site, the day is broken up into eight 45-minute tutoring sessions, from 9:00 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. During these sessions, students from kindergarten through fourth grade who are behind in reading come up to Reading Partners’ second floor alcove and work individually on their reading skills with tutors.

In this alcove, books abound. Some are neatly arranged in bins labeled “Books with Animal Characters” or “2nd Grade Core Read Aloud.” On the table next to Broido and her mentee, a whiteboard reads “Celebrate Latino Literature Week” next to yet another bin, this one filled with bilingual paperbacks with titles like Calling the Doves: El canto de las palomas. Broido’s mentee Hannah reads Chad is the Champ aloud, sounding out the “ch” words that fill the book. Katherine Koller, program manager of Reading Partners in the East Bay, stops by as she circulates around the tutoring sessions, suggesting to first grade Hannah that she point to words while reading. “That’s a good way to make sure you’re reading carefully,” she says.

As the day ends, some tutors pile up vocabulary cards, others put books away. Tutors start filling out exit forms that track their scholars’ reading progress. Koller cleans up supplies and dismisses students. One student gives her a book report to be turned in for a sticker that will go alongside her name on the “Take Reading Home Checklist,” a chart listing the names of all students in the Reading Partners program, with stickers alongside their names for each completed book report. Tutors tell their mentees “Good job!” as the students trickle out to go home. 

Not only does the OLC try to remove barriers to reading, but also to volunteering. Johnson noted that the price of volunteer clearances, authorization for volunteers to work with students that is required by the state of California, which include tuberculosis testing and fingerprinting, can amount to almost $100. “Small organizations don’t really have the budget to reimburse volunteers, or if they did, it was a substantial amount of money every year,” she said. “We also knew that it’s a big barrier for entry for volunteers.”

To remove this barrier, the OLC holds a volunteer training event twice a year. Prospective volunteers can get fingerprinted, have their tuberculosis tests performed and read, and learn how to engage students in literary activities. Over 200 people showed up at this school year’s first training, on September 28, proving to be a strain on the facilities—the volunteer line wound its way down the stairs of the East Bay Community Foundation Conference Center, almost to the exit. “It’s growing dramatically,” said Perham, of their volunteer base. “We have to come up with a new space next time, which is an awesome problem to have.”

One of the prospective volunteers milling around the conference center was Michelle Leonce Cooker. “My daughter just began attending Lincoln Elementary in Oakland, and so that was the reason why I wanted to become a volunteer,” said Cooker, while simultaneously keeping track of her daughter Melina, who was wandering around the food and coloring tables. “And it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get all the requirements done, the TB test and the fingerprinting.”

Broido came into Reading Partners initially through another OLC-affiliated organization called BUILD. For one year, the two organizations operated side-by-side at Sankofa Academy until they decided that it would be more functional to collaborate. Now BUILD mentors at this site, like Broido, mostly tutor students through the Reading Partners program. She began tutoring two and a half years ago. “I just saw it on a campus flyer one day,” she said, “and I worked with kids in high school and I wanted to keep doing it, so I joined it and just stuck with it.”

For OUSD schools, volunteers provide much-needed support and are key to the success of the Oakland Reads 2020 campaign, according to Dillon. “A lot of times, a teacher with a class of 24, it’s very difficult to provide the kind of intensive interventional support that a student needs,” said Dillon. “It’s not impossible, but it is a challenge. Volunteers are critical in supporting our efforts at improving literacy instruction, and really improving literacy outcomes for kids.”

The Oakland Reads 2020 Baseline Report has proposed five focal points for the campaign, in response to the study’s pinpointed areas of concern: groups that have the lowest reading scores, the specific needs of English Language Learners, early years of development, the alignment of supports with what specific groups need, and socioeconomic-related challenges.

Both the OUSD and OLC have taken decisive actions towards these focal points. “We purchased leveled libraries for all of the classrooms, so just increasing the number of books that we have in our classrooms,” said Dillon of the OUSD. “Really getting kids hooked into books and series.”

The district is also incorporating new reading mediums to engage more digitally-oriented students. “We see kids on an iPad a lot,” said Dillon, “a lot of times more frequently than you see them with a book. So what we try to do is create some opportunity for digital text, so that that iPad is not just a game, it also becomes a book, a way for kids to be reading.” In addition, the district uses computer-based programs like Imagine Learning for English Language Learner support, which focuses on different literacy skills.

And schools realize that improving third grade reading scores means taking a step back and looking at the preceding grades. “We recognize that kids don’t just show up at third grade not reading on level,” said Dillon. Students that will be in third grade by 2020 are in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) right now. “We’ve really looked closely at our TK students and just thinking about what are the experiences that they need to be building strong literacy from the beginning, so that we’re not later trying to intervene,” she continued.

The OLC, in turn, in has established book give-aways as part of family reading celebrations. “That is kind of our push, high quality literature and literature that’s relevant for a lot of different cultural backgrounds,” said Johnson.

Ultimately, the OLC and supporters of the Oakland Reads 2020 campaign believe that uniting organizations towards a shared goal is the most efficient way to raise literacy in Oakland. “We believe that we can do more working together rather than working in parallel,” said Perham, “by coming in, learning more about each other, being able to share ideas, and best practices, and figuring out how to work in greater collaboration.”

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