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.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

College Access

Michigan is struggling to put kids through college. So why is a promising solution stuck in first gear?

As an ambitious high school freshman in Illinois, Jasmin Wilson had a simple goal: rack up enough college credits to earn a two-year degree before she was 18.

Then her family moved to Michigan, and now that goal is out of the question. A tangle of state laws makes it hard for high schoolers to take classes at local colleges, an approach known to boost college graduation rates, even as lawmakers worry that too few Michiganders hold college degrees.

Those laws mean that students like Wilson cannot get an associate degree before graduation, unlike their peers in neighboring states.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Wilson, now an 18-year-old senior at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “There shouldn’t be a limit on how many courses you can take. I feel like they’re limiting students.”

A growing body of research suggests that the standard U.S. educational timeline — four years of high school followed, ideally, by four years of college — is badly out of date. So-called dual enrollment provides a major boost to rates of college enrollment, college and high school graduation, and even students’ academic performance in high school, according to a review of the evidence by federal education officials.

Many districts are recognizing the appeal of dual enrollment. Earlier this week, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced plans to help more students take courses at a local community college.

But Michigan puts unusually strict limits on dual enrollment, capping the number of college courses students can take while attending high school at 10. The availability of such programs across the state is also limited by a funding system that requires Michigan’s already cash-strapped school districts to pay for dual enrollment courses, leading to gaps in access across the state.

Some education leaders are urging lawmakers to make dual enrollment easier.

“There’s a lot of positive things here,” said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Directors, referring to dual enrollment. “We haven’t in this state caught up to the rest of the nation.”

Although the number of participants in Michigan has grown in recent years, the rate of dual enrollment remains lower than advocates would like, with fewer than 1 in 6 Michigan high schoolers taking classes for college credit, Miller said. (Thousands more take Advanced Placement classes, which can also lead to college credit.)

More than 2 million U.S. high schoolers participate today, including 81,000 students in Michigan, and that number is growing. Early middle colleges — high schools that offer college courses in-house — have also expanded.

Yet Dave Dugger, executive director of the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium, worries that the number of students enrolling in dual enrollment in Michigan could be slowing down.

Although some influential policymakers have expressed interest in dual enrollment, the idea hasn’t developed the popular support necessary to drive a major change to the deeply ingrained timeline on which American education is based.

“We’re a time-based system,” he said. “Everyone filters education through their educational experience, which tends to be 30 years behind the times.”

Dugger has spent the last 25 years creating dual enrollment programs and helping educational organizations build their own. He says it’s just common sense to allow motivated high school students to take the more challenging coursework offered in college.

And as advocates often point out, there are plenty of other perks.

By accumulating college credits in high school, students can save money on tuition, no small matter at a time when Michigan families are paying more than ever for college. The classes prepare them for the fast pace of college work. And crucially, they shorten the path to a college degree, increasing the odds that students will end up with a credential.

That fact alone might be enough to win a powerful ally in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who focused her State of the State address on Michigan’s relatively low rate of college completion.

“Dual enrollment becomes a contributor to increasing education attainment in the state,” said Doug Ross, Whitmer’s newly appointed senior advisor on higher education attainment and economic development. “As the full strategy is laid out for moving from roughly 43 percent [of Michiganders age 25 to 65 with a college degree] to 60 percent in the next decade, dual enrollment is an issue that will come on the table early in the process.”

The cap was put in place in 2005 to ensure that school districts wouldn’t be forced to pay too much for college courses. Districts don’t have to promote dual enrollment, but they can’t opt out of it, either.

The legislature has shown little interest in lifting the cap — the last effort to do so passed the state senate last year but did not pass the house. No bills introduced in the legislature this session would lift limits on dual enrollment, Miller said.

The problem that the cap sets out to solve could be fixed, in theory, with a carrot. Miller says the state should send extra funding to school districts who otherwise would have trouble making the case for dual enrollment.

But that proposal could run into trouble in the statehouse. The Republican legislature has voiced skepticism about new spending, while the Democratic governor is trying to find revenue for several major initiatives at once.

Sarah Anthony, a newly elected Democratic state representative from Lansing (her district does not include Michigan State University), is tired of waiting for people to grasp the stakes of this debate.

While lawmakers fail to come up with a solution, she said, far too few students are completing college. The effects are especially pronounced on students who, like her, are the first in their family to attend college.

“As you sit in some of these rooms, sometimes you have to step back and say, who’s looking out for students and families?” she said.