ATLANTA — Five of the 19 students in teacher Chelsea Grant’s third grade classroom are reading below grade level.
When it’s time to read aloud on a recent Friday, the students show vastly different levels of skill and confidence.
“Remember you read with expression, feeling and fluency,” Grant told her Atlanta students. I want it .”
Two girls raise their shoulders and pretend to be reading for school plays, the rest of the class remain seated. Some read slowly and haltingly. Many trip over tricky words – “phosphorescent” and “radiance” – and a few get stuck on simpler ones. Others don’t volunteer at all.
Grant’s students — “my babies” as she calls them — spent the better part of the 2020-2021 school year learning from home. This was the first grade. It is a critical year to learn how to read.
Many are still far behind.
Mounting evidence from around the country shows that students who spent most of the time learning remotely during the 2020-2021 school year, many of them Black and Latino, lost about half of an academic year of learning. That’s twice as much as their peers who studied in person that year.
Third-graders are in a very delicate time. This is the year in which they have to master reading. Everything after third grade will require reading comprehension to learn math, social studies and science. Studies show that students who aren’t able to read fluently in third grade will struggle later on and may even drop out.
“Those students are very vulnerable,” said John King Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for improving access to high-quality education for low-income students and students of color.
” You just have to worry, will kids get what they want? If not, there’s the risk of a lost generation of students.”
Atlanta has taken more drastic steps than most other cities to make up for that lost learning. The 50,000-student district was one of the only school systems to extend the school day. The elementary school students go to school seven hours a day, which is half an hour less than the time before the pandemic.
” We know that time spent with students is a key part of improving performance. Her team and she settled on adding more time to school days because that was the only thing they could control. Summer school was also offered, although it wasn’t required for all students.
During the extra 30 minutes, students who are behind attend small-group tutoring. If done well, tutoring has a greater impact than most other interventions, studies show.
Grant’s student Malaysia Thomas, 8, attended summer school for reading and math, and now attends small-group tutoring for both subjects. Thomas described tutoring as “fun”. “But there are all of these big words I can’t read.”
Her mother, Diamond Anderson, interjects: “I have seen her tremendously improve … and I’m grateful for any extra help,” she said.
Brandi Thomas noticed her daughter Drew, who is also in Grant’s class, fell behind during the pandemic. She was unable to answer questions or solve problems as fast as the rest of her classmates. And she couldn’t read well. “She was frustrated that she couldn’t keep up. Thomas stated that it was difficult to see her struggle.
Drew wasn’t able to attend summer school because her mother, a single parent and hairdresser, needed to work as many hours as possible during the summer to support her family. But Drew has attended tutoring at school.
Thomas took it a step further and had Drew tutored three times per week. “I just knew that it would take a village for her to pick up the basics,” she stated. Thomas said Drew is now able to “read forwards and backwards” with the extra assistance.
Even with all Atlanta is doing, some experts are wondering if that city, never mind other districts, is doing enough to help students become proficient readers and master other subjects.
Los Angeles added four optional days to this year’s school calendar, added summer school capacity and has left it up to schools to decide how to provide tutoring. New York City has created an afterschool program that allows students with special needs access to tutoring, other services, and hopes to decrease class sizes in certain schools. Boston adopted a new approach to teaching children to read, added summer school seats and contracted an online tutoring company for students to use at home.
Evidence from around the country shows that even when schools provide some of these services, such as optional after school tutoring or summer school, many parents aren’t using them.
“I don’t think most school districts have a realistic sense of what it’s actually going to take to make up for the losses,” said Harvard University economist Thomas Kane, who has studied the impact of the pandemic on student learning. He advocates for extending the school year by four to five weeks, for a couple of years, although he admits the idea is politically unpopular.
Atlanta’s plan, which extends the school day and offers tutoring for a total of three years, “would seem to be enough — at least on paper,” Kane wrote in an email. Students would need to attend enough days of summer school, which is often a challenge for districts, and small group tutoring sessions would need to be small with three children or fewer.
He estimates Atlanta students lost a total of 18 weeks of instruction in math and 12 weeks in reading between March 2020 and the end of the 2020-2021 school year. These kids get a shorter school day, and more time in summer school.
Atlanta school leaders say their testing shows students are making improvements, but wouldn’t say what percentage are seeing growth or whether they’re on track to become proficient.
“There’s clearly some areas where we need to hone in even more,” said Herring. “We’ve got some work to do. … But there is urgency to make up for the disruptions.”
In the meantime, some parents won’t wait and are finding the extra resources on their own. Brandi Thomas believes that hiring a tutor to help her daughter was the best thing.
The other day the mother and daughter were at a stop light, and Drew started reading a billboard advertising a law firm. Brandi stated that Drew read the words “attorney” and “settlement”. I was like “OK!” You can. “
Thomas has no plans to stop being a private tutor for her child. She said, “I can’t allow her to fall behind.”
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