Loving literacy

Two hours of reading club each week is helping students at one school learn to read

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Volunteer Cindy Stechmeyer reads with two second graders during reading club at Lumberg Elementary in Edgewater.

Twice a week after school, about 40 elementary students are spread throughout Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater, in almost every classroom and quiet corner they find.

Volunteers from two local churches pepper the kids with questions and play rhyming games. Among them is Gary Albrecht, in his second year helping out with the after-school reading club.

“I do the characters’ voices and they catch on right away,” Albrecht said. “Then they’re doing the voices too. They just come alive.”

Just the extra two hours of reading per week last year helped kids improve their reading abilities, vocabulary and English fluency, school teachers found. A group of local nonprofits, the Edgewater Collective, highlighted the Lumberg reading club in a report published this week. The group views it as a model that may be replicated at other elementaries in the diverse Jefferson County neighborhoods bordering Denver.

The club includes students of all ages, but focuses on kids in first and second grade with the goal of having more students reading at the appropriate level by third grade.

“Everything flows from that third-grade reading,” said Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective. “These students need extra supports.”

Of the approximately 460 students at the school this year, a little more than 40 percent are learning English as a second language and more than 82 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, a measure of poverty.

According to the numbers in this week’s report, 82 percent of the reading club students, most of whom were encouraged to join because they were falling behind, made at least one year’s growth on reading level ability. Some saw two years’ worth of improvement.

Educators say that the difference is clear when looking at individual students who are in the reading club and those who aren’t.

“It’s a big payoff,” said Rhonda Hatch-Rivera, principal of Lumberg.

Teachers say the two hours a week is enough to make a difference because most of their students don’t regularly read at home.

“We know they don’t because you ask kids, ‘Who reads at home with you?’ They say, ‘Nobody,’” said first-grade teacher Suzie Wawra. “Just that extra time with an adult talking to them and showing them that this is not just important to your teacher or your parents, it’s important for you, is wonderful.”

Teachers say many of the parents are working multiple jobs and may not have time or don’t know how to read English.

More students at the school could benefit from the club, but there’s a waitlist and officials won’t admit more students without more volunteers.

“What we’ve found is it’s best to have one-on-one,” said Laurie Lopez, a teacher who helps coordinate the reading club. “We have six tutors this year who have two kids, but any more than that and it really loses effect.”

The one-to-one pairings also help volunteers develop relationships with the students so they can mentor them around other life skills.

When Albrecht’s fourth-grade reading buddy, Christopher, arrived on Thursday in the room that serves as home base for the reading club, he had his report card in hand.

“We’ll go through this in a little bit, but tell me did you do good?” Albrecht asked.

“I did good,” Christopher responded with a grin.

Lumberg Elementary has a grant this year helping the program by letting staff get paid for some of the extra hours spent on the program, by having an employee organizing all after-school clubs and by paying for snacks to get kids through the extra hour of learning.

Officials said that while money isn’t required to run the program, someone does need to invest time into programming. Volunteers go through background checks and a two-hour orientation at the start of the year. Lopez is also planning another training session in December because volunteers are asking for tips on how to help kids more.

School officials say the volunteers are going above and beyond because they get fulfillment out of the program too.

Volunteer Stephanie Briggs, a retired high school teacher, said she is surprised at how much she enjoys working with the young kids.

“It is so refreshing as a volunteer to come into an elementary school,” Briggs said. “It’s very uplifting. It’s much more fun than I expected.”

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”