‘Too much to learn’: Schools race to catch up kids’ reading

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Michael Crowder stands nervously at the front of his third grade classroom, his mustard-yellow polo shirt buttoned to the top.

“Give us some vowels,” says his teacher, La’Neeka Gilbert-Jackson. His eyes search a chart that lists vowels, consonant pairs and word endings, but he doesn’t land on an answer. “Let’s help him out,” Gilbert-Jackson says.

“A-E-I-O-U,” she and the students say in unison.

Michael missed most of first grade, the foundational year for learning to read. It was the first fall of the pandemic, and for months Atlanta only offered school online. Michael’s mom had just had a baby, and there was no quiet place to study in their small apartment. He missed a good part of second grade, too. So, like most of his classmates at his Atlanta school, he isn’t reading at the level expected for a third grader.

And that poses an urgent problem.

Third grade is the last chance for Michael’s class to master reading with help from teachers before they face more rigorous expectations. If Michael and his classmates don’t read fluently by the time this school year ends, research shows they’re less likely to complete high school. Third grade has always been pivotal in a child’s academic life, but pandemic-fueled school interruptions have made it much harder. Nationally, third graders lost more ground in reading than kids in older grades, and they’ve been slower to catch up.

To address pandemic learning loss, Atlanta has been one of the only cities in the country to add class time — 30 minutes a day for three years. That’s more time for Gilbert-Jackson to explain the confusing ways that English words work and to tailor lessons to small groups of students based on their abilities.

She hopes it will be enough. The school year has been a race to prepare her students for future classes, where reading well is a gateway to learning everything else.

“Yes, I work you hard,” she says about her students. “Because we have too much to learn.”

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SLOW PROGRESS

Right before December vacation, Gilbert-Jackson’s class is subdued and visibly tired. A handful of students, anticipating the long break, don’t come to school. One girl has been out for weeks; now, back in class, she swings her arm across her desk and tries to go to sleep.

“You gotta wake up, baby girl,” Gilbert-Jackson says to her gently. “You need to tell Mama to put you to bed.”

The lethargy is palpable, but Gilbert-Jackson moves on with her lessons. There’s too much to learn.

She reviews suffixes, how to spell words ending in -ch, -tch, and how to make different words plural. Some students have spellings memorized; for those who don’t, Gilbert-Jackson explains the rules that govern spelling. It’s a phonics-based program that the district now mandates for all third graders, in line with science-backed curricula gaining momentum across the country.

Last year, the district started mandating the same curriculum for all first and second graders. It can be dry and tedious stuff, replete with obscure jargon like “digraph” and “trigraph.” The strong readers nod and respond during these sessions, but the students still learning the basics look lost.

To inject fun into the lesson, Gilbert-Jackson turns it into a quiz game. The students perk up as they race to set up their laptops.

“Teach,” Gilbert-Jackson calls out. “How do you spell teach?”

Students have to choose between “teach” and “teatch.”

“Yes!” some of the children shout from their desks as their scores pop onto their screens.

Says Gilbert-Jackson: “I don’t know why I’m hearing so many yeses when only half got it right.”

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LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS

As the first semester draws to a close, 14 of her 19 students aren’t meeting expectations for reading. That includes Michael.

Gilbert-Jackson has an important advantage: She has known Michael and most of his classmates and their parents since the first fall of the pandemic. She taught them in first grade and second grade, and followed them to third. She knows how much school many of them missed — and why. The strategy was adopted by Boyd Elementary to give students some consistency through the crisis.

It has paid off. The steady relationship has helped her adapt her approach and care for her students at a school where 81% of families receive food stamps or other government assistance. “I know what they know,” she says.

The long-term connection — or perhaps just the continuity of attending school every day — has helped Michael start reading. At the end of first grade he knew two of the so-called “sight words” —“a” and “the.” By that point in the year, first graders were expected to have memorized 200 of these high-frequency words that aren’t easily decodable by new readers.

Now, midway through third grade, he is reading like a mid-year first grader — two years behind where he’s supposed to be. But, says Gilbert-Jackson, it’s progress. “You can see the wheels turning,” she says. “Sometimes he’ll draw a blank, but he’s still trying.”

When he’s not in school, Michael has been dropping by his apartment complex’s community center most afternoons to read books to the staff, who encourage the activity with pizza parties. His report cards show improvement. His parents have noticed his growth.

“I see a change in him,” says Michael’s stepfather, Rico Morton, who works landscaping and manages a pizza delivery store at night. Morton says he sometimes quizzes Michael and his siblings on trivia and multiplication tables. “He’s matured. Now he speaks in complete sentences,” Morton says. “I feel like he has the potential to be someone.”

But Michael’s days in Gilbert-Jackson’s third grade class are numbered, and he’s still far behind what’s expected for a third grader.

That’s an important inflection point. Until the end of third grade, students generally receive guidance from teachers to perfect their literacy. After that, students are expected to read more challenging texts in all of their subjects and to improve reading skills on their own. Researchers have found students who don’t read fluently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out or not finish high school on time. And if a student fails to graduate, the risks increase. For instance, adults without a diploma are more likely to end up in prison.

Michael isn’t the only student in this perilous zone. A handful of his classmates are also reading or comprehending at the first grade level.

Some, like Michael, didn’t attend Zoom classes. There are two girls who did attend classes, and appeared to be doing well at the time. But Gilbert-Jackson believes their parents were doing some if not all of their work for them, and the girls didn’t learn to read and write.

One of those girls is now reading at the second grade level, but her comprehension is more like a mid-year first grader, says Gilbert-Jackson. “The words just bounce off her,” Gilbert-Jackson says. “She doesn’t internalize what she’s reading. For me, that’s harder to fix.”

The other girl whose mother likely did her schoolwork during online learning is reading at the level of a beginning first grader. Gilbert-Jackson worries about her. “Let’s say she does go to fourth grade: Nobody is going to read anything to her,” she says. “I don’t want to set them up for failure.”

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NOT MANY ALTERNATIVES

Good options are few. On paper, Atlanta’s district policy is to promote elementary school students who “master” reading, math and other subjects. But how often the district actually holds students back is unclear. Atlanta’s school system did not respond to requests for data.

Making students repeat a grade has fallen out of practice across the country, although more students are being held back because of the pandemic. Research before the pandemic showed the practice had mixed academic results, can stigmatize students and causes stress for families. It’s also expensive for school districts, because it could require adding classes and teachers.

These students can attend four weeks of summer school, but that likely won’t be enough to bring them up to third grade reading levels. And attendance by kids who sign up for summer school is notoriously low nationwide.

When the students start fourth grade, their schools will test their reading and math levels, and they “will be placed in the appropriate interventions,” according to the district. Teachers and students will have a daily extra half hour of class next year, the last in Atlanta’s three-year plan to address pandemic setbacks.

Before leaving for Christmas vacation, Gilbert-Jackson started reaching out to students’ parents to talk about how their children were progressing and “what may or may not happen” with their prospects for fourth grade. Though it’s rare, she tells them she could recommend holding back a student or a parent could request it.

She encourages parents to keep working with their kids, buy workbooks at dollar stores and, in some cases, agree to testing to determine whether their children need more specialized help.

The parents of some of her struggling readers don’t return her calls or show up for parent-teacher conferences. In most cases, says Gilbert-Jackson, “I think they mean well.”

“But I think some have the attitude, ‘I’m sending you to school and you better listen to that lady,'” she says, “but there’s not that much support at home.”

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NO EASY SOLUTIONS

While Gilbert-Jackson appears to have a plan to move most of her students forward, two new students are testing the veteran teacher. At this stage of the year, their challenges resist easy solutions.

One day in late February, Gilbert-Jackson asks her students to revise a narrative they’d each been writing about a glowing rock. Most get to work quickly.

One new student, a boy with a 100-watt smile and a halo of loose hair twists, had transferred from another Atlanta public school in November. Instead of taking out his narrative, he chooses a book from the class library and starts writing in his notebook. A few minutes later, he presents his notebook to Keione Vance, the teacher’s assistant.

“So, did you copy this from a book?” she asks. “I know you just copied it.”

She asks him to read to her. He happily starts on the book, an “easy reader” aimed at a first grade reading level. He struggles with words: nice, true, voice, sure, might, outside, and because.

When he arrived in November, it appeared he needed “to learn everything from first, second and third grade,” says Gilbert-Jackson. He often puts his head down in class. “I’m getting more work out of him now. But you can tell when he hits his limit. He’s like, ‘uh-uh.’”

While most of the class works on writing, the other new student, a tall girl with long braids that curl at the end, sits at her desk staring into the distance and humming.

“She’s struggling,” says Gilbert-Jackson. “There’s something I cannot put my finger on.”

Gilbert-Jackson worries she isn’t serving her two new students as well as she’d like. “What they need would require all of my attention,” she says. “This train has been running for three years. I can’t start over.”

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A LAST CHANCE

As the other students in class keep working, some ask Gilbert-Jackson to read their stories. Some are written in complete sentences with few errors. Others lack punctuation and capitalization and have misspellings throughout.

After a few more students ask Gilbert-Jackson to check their stories, she gets the class’s attention.

“Class, class,” calls Gilbert-Jackson.

“Yes, yes,” replies the class.

“Class, class, class,” calls Gilbert-Jackson.

“Yes, yes, yes,” replies the class. And then their teacher says words that, for some of them, may be very daunting.

“Mrs. Gilbert-Jackson cannot be the person who says when your final draft is ready,” she says. “I’m not going to be there when you are in fourth grade. I’m not going to be there when you take your exams.”

Gilbert-Jackson and the other third grade teachers are so concerned about their students’ reading and writing abilities, along with math skills, that they decided after Christmas break to cut back on social studies and science to give students extra instruction and practice for the rest of the year. It’s her last chance to help them before they move on to another teacher — and to the expectation they will read everything by themselves.

The extra time may have helped some students get across the line. Now only seven of the 19 students are below grade level in reading. Of the students who are still behind, Gilbert-Jackson is the least worried about one: Michael Crowder. She’s confident he’ll find a way to navigate the new world ahead of him — a world where he’ll have to be more self-sufficient, even if there is too much to learn.

“He wants it,” she says. “He’ll catch up.”

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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