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Campaign aims to double low income students' proficiency rates

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Campaign aims to double low income students' proficiency rates
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Of the 60 percent of West Virginia students who come from low-income backgrounds, only a third can read proficiently by the end of third grade.

That’s according to Charlotte Webb, coordinator of elementary education for the state Department of Education and state leader for the West Virginia Leaders of Literacy: Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a statewide initiative that seeks to raise the third-grade proficiency rate among Mountain State students who qualify for free or reduced lunch to 66 percent over the next five school years.

The 2015-16 state budget allocates $5.7 million to the campaign. Monica DellaMea, executive director of the state Office of Early Learning, said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin previously gave about $6.2 million per year to improving math and reading instruction in third and eighth-grade classrooms, but he’s redirected the reduced funding to focus on improving reading from birth through third grade -- albeit with a broad array of possible initiatives including reducing student absences, encouraging parents to read to their children and identifying students who have problems with vision or hearing before they enter school.

“It truly takes this holistic approach,” DellaMea said. “It’s not just about what happens in third grade, it’s not just about what happens in kindergarten even, it starts at birth.

“... Helping families understand the importance of reading to their children, from birth, is something that we just want to permeate,” she said. “That culture of literacy, to make sure that young children are hearing more words, a richer vocabulary.”

In an email response to the Gazette-Mail’s inquiries about the shifting funding focus, Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman wrote that the governor “believes that reading on grade level by the end of the third grade is a critical stage in a student’s life.” He said the governor “allocates finite state dollars to reflect the administration’s priorities.”

About 150 people -- whom DellaMea said represent members of districts, Regional Education Service Agencies, Head Start preschool programs, the state Department of Health and Human Resources and others working on the initiative -- gathered at the Charleston Embassy Suites Monday for the first day of a two-day meeting on the program, part of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Ron Fairchild, director of the Network Community Support Center for the national campaign, said it’s funded by a private, public and nonprofit organizations, and was launched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore, Maryland-based philanthropy that focuses on helping disadvantaged children.

DellaMea said 75 percent of the $5.7 million is going to the 55 school districts for myriad projects. For example, Bob Calhoun, executive director of elementary education for Kanawha County, said the state’s largest school district will use its roughly $400,000 to purchase a reading improvement software program called MindPlay and buy tablet computers for elementary school students to use the software. Through the roughly $14 million Learning 20/20 plan, Kanawha distributed about 15,000 iPad Air tablet computers to every middle and high school student in the county last school year, but not elementary kids. Calhoun didn’t know offhand Monday how many tablets the funding would buy.

In Putnam County, Rebecca Meadows -- director of Title I, Title III and pre-kindergarten -- said the roughly $106,000 the district received, augmented with Title I federal funding that is dedicated to helping low-income students, may fund tutoring after school, transporting kids to libraries and other areas during the summer and paying individuals who may read to children at the parks and playgrounds where they congregate, rather than requiring them to come to school buildings for extra reading time.

DellaMea said counties were responsible for submitting plans that designate how they’ll use their funding for one or more focuses of the campaign. She said the amount of funding for each county was based largely on number of low-income students it serves.

The rest of the statewide program money is going to provide grants that the eight Regional Education Service Agencies are competing for to aid the campaign; hire five individuals through Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Education Research and Development to provide assistance; and fund a five-year study by the National Institute for Early Education Research that will analyze the effect of early learning programming in selected counties. DellaMea said Monday she didn’t know which counties the group would study.

A report released in March by West Virginia Kids Count, an organization also funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, stated that as early as 18 months, toddlers in low-income families are already several months behind other children in their vocabularies.

By 2 years old, higher socioeconomic status students use more than 400 spoken words, while poorer students are barely at 300. That’s a difference of six months of learning. By 3 years, kids in high-income families have heard 20 million more words. By age 4, the gap widens to 18 months of learning, and persists through high school and beyond.

The report used third-grade reading scores on the Westest standardized state exam, now replaced with the Smarter Balanced test, to illustrate the gap between students from poor families and their peers. Doddridge County had the highest gap, at a 44 percent difference in the number of kids who are not proficient in reading. In Kanawha, the gap was 26 percent in favor of wealthier families. In Putnam, it was 17 percent.

Margie Hale, executive director of Kids Count, said that, overall, the data shows family income is the strongest factor in determining educational outcomes.

DellaMea told those at Monday’s meeting that third grade is when a student should be able to progress from learning to read, to reading to learn.

“The research shows that if children aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade, the likelihood that they will become proficient readers diminishes greatly each year,” she said. “So we knew we needed to address this early on, from birth.”