time and money

City invests in new efforts to help struggling readers, but some say more is needed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ashley Gonzalez with her mother, Brenda Brazell. Ashley, who has dyslexia, now attends a private school in New Jersey after falling far behind in two city schools.

After five years in a Bronx grade school, Ashley Gonzalez’s reading problems only seemed to grow worse.

Frustrated, Ashley’s mother Brenda Brazell transferred her in sixth grade to a Harlem charter school. But Ashely, who has dyslexia, could not keep up with the work at her new school, so Brazell sought out advocates who argued in a city hearing that the public school system had not met Ashley’s special needs.

The judge agreed, and as a result Ashley now is in the seventh grade at a private school in Teaneck, New Jersey, for bright students with learning disabilities. The city pays for her daily journey from the Bronx, her lunch, and the school’s tuition, which will cost $39,999 next year.

“If I wasn’t diligent, if I didn’t beg and plead and literally cry for someone to give me assistance,” Brazell said, “I would have never got the help I needed.”

Under city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has said she aims to get every student reading at grade level by the second grade, the education department is hoping that fewer struggling readers will have to go to such lengths to get the help they need. In an effort launched in December, speech therapists have been asked to assist young students with their basic reading skills, and the department is planning a new partnership with Manhattanville College to train teachers how to help dyslexic students.

Still, advocates have pointed out that funding for the training initiative — $3.2 million over five years — amounts to about $3 per year for each of the city’s more than 186,000 special-needs students, many of whom struggle with reading. In contrast, the city spent more than $222 million last year on private-school tuition in cases like Ashley’s, where judges found that public schools had not met students’ needs, according to a City Council analysis.

Meanwhile, as Ashley’s experience shows, effective interventions for students with serious reading problems are costly: Schools must either hire reading specialists or pay for teachers to take high-priced and lengthy training courses.

“It all boils down,” said Lori Podvesker, a program manager at the advocacy group Resources for Children with Special Needs, “to time and money.”

When reading goes wrong

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Theresa Perry with her daughter, Ayanna. Perry paid for private tutoring for her daughter, who has dyslexia, and eventually moved her from a public to a private school.

It is unclear exactly how many city students have serious reading problems. The city does not track the number of students with dyslexia, a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading, since federal education law does not classify that as a separate disability. However, experts estimate that between 5 and 17 percent of school-age children nationwide have dyslexia, and an influential 2004 report said that 70 percent of older students require reading remediation.

When city students experience reading challenges, they often do not get all the help they need — often despite schools’ best efforts. Experts and educators cite many reasons: teachers who lack expertise in reading disorders, crowded classrooms where students may have a range of special needs, and tight school budgets that prohibit intensive interventions.

Ayanna Perry, who has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attended Baychester Academy in the Bronx for several years. Ayanna, 11, soon fell far behind in reading: She mixed up letters, had trouble sounding out words, and failed the state English exams.

Her personal education plan called for a full-time special education class, but the public grade school did not offer any, so she was placed in a class alongside students without disabilities but given extra help for parts of the day, according to her mother, Theresa Perry. (The school’s principal, Cristine Vaughan, did not respond to requests for comment, but it is not uncommon for schools to provide special-needs students with different supports than those mandated by their personal learning plans based what is available at the school.)

The school also tried a remedial reading program called the Wilson Reading System, but only offered it twice a week for thirty minutes, Perry said, even though the education department has said the lessons should be given five days a week for at least 45 minutes. Perry eventually paid for private tutoring at a cost of $119 per hour. This year, she enrolled Ayanna in a private school in Queens, whose tuition Perry is hoping the city will cover.

“All those years, they did what they could,” Perry said about the public school system, “but not what was needed.”

How to help struggling readers

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Two approaches to help struggling readers are to hire specialists or to train classroom teachers to use intervention programs. Both approaches are expensive and can have drawbacks.

The first way to deal with struggling readers is to catch them before they fall, experts say, providing strong early-years reading instruction and assessing students often to spot any learning gaps.

When students start to show signs of significant reading difficulties — they struggle to make sense of individual words and whole texts — then experts say they need frequent, specialized help with their basic reading skills. But that demands highly trained teachers and well-structured programs.

“For kids who need extra help, you can’t just leave it to the teachers to figure out,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that represented Ashley’s mother, Brenda Brazell, in the administrative hearing. Moroff is working on a study of effective literacy interventions in city schools. “If there’s anything consistent I’ve seen in all the programs that work, it’s very, very directed and focused — it’s not haphazard at all.”

One way to run such programs is to hire reading specialists who coordinate the school’s reading interventions and work directly with students. But several observers said fewer schools hire such specialists today than in the past, perhaps because of budget limitations.

“A lot of those positions have been reassigned so that schools don’t have a sufficient number of trained reading specialists,” said Professor Dolores Perin, who coordinates a reading specialist advanced-degree program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She said the program’s graduates often fail to find jobs in city schools because many principals choose instead to have classroom teachers take on that role.

Such teachers are “doing their best,” she said, “but they don’t have the preparation.”

Another approach is to pay for classroom teachers to receive specialized training in programs like Wilson, the approach tried at Ayanna’s former school. Wilson is a multi-year remedial program for students who struggle with basic reading skills.

But such programs require big investments. For instance, a typical Wilson certification course costs $4,000 and includes 90 hours of online learning, 60 in-person sessions, and classroom coaching. Once teachers are trained, the schools must keep their class sizes small: Daily Wilson lessons are meant to include no more than 12 students, and only six if they have learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, schools run the risk of losing their investments. The previous administration trained thousands of teachers in Wilson, but many eventually took their skills to higher-paying districts. And at high-needs schools that often have an outsize number of struggling readers, turnover is a perennial problem.

Lori Wheal, a sixth-grade English teacher at I.S. 131 in the Bronx, said she tries to work with small groups of struggling readers during class while other students read independently. In the past, the school had two Wilson-trained specialists who would have targeted such students.

“Now neither of them are here,” Wheal said. “So we don’t do that anymore.”

A promising literacy initiative for middle schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
J.H.S. 144 reading intervention teacher Katie Ivers (left) with Ellen Barrett-Kelly, the school’s new principal. The school paid for Ivers to be trained in two intensive reading remediation programs.

As costly and complicated as it can be to catch up struggling readers, schools like J.H.S. 144 in the Bronx show how it is possible when schools get the resources and support they need.

Soon after taking over the floundering school in 2011, then-Principal Jeremy Kabinoff joined the Middle School Quality Initiative, or MSQI. With more than 80 schools today, the city’s four-year-old effort to boost low-performing middle schools by focusing on literacy is likely the largest such program in the country.

At J.H.S. 144, the program quickly took root. Teachers periodically assessed students’ reading levels, ran highly structured reading-strategy and vocabulary courses during 90-minute literacy blocks, and sent the lowest readers to newly trained specialists. To do all that, the school received nearly $500,000 over three years, which funded teacher training and coaching, classroom libraries, computers, and licences for online reading programs.

Katie Ivers, a former math teacher who was licensed to teach English, was trained in Wilson and a similar program, Just Words. Since September, the struggling readers in her intervention classes have already improved an average of 6.33 points on a reading assessment used by MSQI schools. Nationwide, the typical growth for an entire year is 3 to 4 points.

“I believe in it,” Ivers said about the school’s reading approach, “and it works.”

Budding programs target struggling readers

The education department is currently reviewing MSQI to determine its effectiveness and whether it should be expanded, an agency spokesman said.

In addition to that, the city started the initiative in December where speech therapists spend three periods each week collaborating with kindergarten and first-grade teachers to help students with basic reading and speaking skills, according to officials. The effort, which was expanded in February, now includes 148 schools. (The city has not yet released details about the new teacher-training program centered on dyslexia, and Manhattanville College declined to discuss the partnership before it is finalized.)

The city has also hosted more than 100 literacy trainings for educators this year, including workshops on the Wilson program, and principals will be able to request extra help for their reading programs from new borough-based support centers that will open this summer, said spokesman Harry Hartfield. Those various efforts reflect Chancellor Fariña’s commitment to struggling readers, he added.

“By stressing rigorous teaching and vocabulary development,” Hartfield said in a statement, “the chancellor will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that every student is able to read at or above grade level.”

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede