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 on Thursday.

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.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.