Parents demand action from Summit school board after 62% of third graders are shown to be reading below grade level
At the Summit School District Board of Education meeting Thursday, a young elementary school student named Leah stood in front of board members and told her story of being a Summit student with dyslexia.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I got bullied by other kids, thinking I was stupid and nobody cared,” Leah said, her voice cracking between small sobs and rising amid tears. “Every day I go back and think I can’t do anything. It’s really hard to know you’re not the only one.”
Leah was one of a couple dozen students and parents who filled the district’s administrative building, pleading with the board to implement scientifically proven methods of teaching reading rather than approaches they say have failed them and other students and alumni of the Summit School District.
Dr. Erin Sain, a local dentist and parent of a Frisco Elementary School student with dyslexia, led the parent contingent Thursday. Sain said she wants to work with the district to adopt science- and research-based literacy programs when the district renews its literacy curriculum this year.
Sain said she was prompted to take action based on her own child’s education experience, which she supplements with a tutor, as well as sobering statistics about reading proficiency in the district.
According to the state’s 2018 Colorado Measures of Academic Success standardized testing results, 62% of Summit’s third graders were reading below grade level. While that is in line with or above state and national averages, third grade literacy is still a critical milestone in a child’s education.
A report titled “Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that 16% of children not reading proficiently by the third grade do not end up graduating from high school, a rate four times higher than proficient readers.
That same report found that at least one-third of the nation’s students are not reading proficiently by third grade and that 63% of students who don’t graduate high school had low or no proficiency in reading when they were in third grade.
Sain acknowledged that the problem with literacy is a statewide and national one and not limited to the school district. But given the lack of improvement in reading rates over the past few decades, she said, it became clear to her that there was a disconnect between the way schools have been teaching reading to kids and the research that has emerged about reading over the past 30 years.
Sain said she is trying to change that by starting at her daughter’s school and working with the district to implement structured literacy districtwide. She also wants parents to be on the committee that reviews the literacy curriculum, something she said the district has refused to allow.
Sain was joined at the meeting by her husband, Patrick Giberson, who has dyslexia. They both were graduates of the Summit district, with Giberson graduating from Summit High School in 1999.
Giberson, who struggled with reading his entire life, excelled in math and eventually earned a master’s in structural engineering. Giberson told the board — while slowly, and at times haltingly, reading from a typed statement — that 20 years after graduation from the district and 30 years after he was supposed to be reading proficiently at Breckenridge Elementary School, he still has trouble doing any task that requires reading. His experience is one he wanted his dyslexic daughter to be spared.
Another parent told the board her family has paid more than $48,000 since 2015 to get their child with severe dyslexia on the way to reading proficiently when it became apparent he was falling further and further behind his peers.
The problem, the parents said, is how teachers have been teaching reading.
Balanced literacy, the standard approach for teaching how to read in most classrooms, uses word analogies, pictures and context to teach reading. That approach, critics say, does not always take into account children who have problems with the very building blocks of reading, including how to make certain sounds, how to structure words or proper arrangement of words.
Structured literacy, the teaching method Sain and national dyslexia advocacy organization Decoding Dyslexia prefer, is defined as explicit and systematic teaching that focuses on the basic root of reading, including phonological awareness, word recognition, phonics and decoding, spelling, and syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels.
“I know that many teachers and principals are willing and eager to implement structured literacy; however, if they are not given the tools and resources necessary and do not have the clear leadership and guidance from top school district officials, they will not be successful,” Sain wrote to the school board in a letter.
As it happens, help may be on the way from the state. Colorado recently passed SB19-199, “READ Act Implementation Measures,” which specifies that literacy curriculums and teacher training must be “focused on or aligns with the science of reading, including teaching in the areas of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency including oral skills, and reading comprehension.”
The new bill was sponsored by Summit’s state representatives, Rep. Julie McCluskie (D-Dillon) and State Sen. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale).
Responding to the concerns relayed by parents, school district representatives said Friday that they understood the concerns and have been working to address deficiencies in the curriculum as well as continuing to provide supports to students who are falling behind.
“We have support teams in place where we collaborate together with the parents, the staff and the teachers to work with children at an individual basis,” district literacy coordinator Hollyanna Bates said. “We try to respond to every parent request for changes that might be made and problem solve with them to meet the needs of their kids. I’m just as heartbroken if kids are not reading at the level they should be.”
In a statement, the district promised to work with the Colorado Department of Education to pursue more professional development grants to get teachers trained in science-based teaching methods. The district said it already had engaged teachers in professional development for those methods and pointed out that the district’s CMAS and PSAT test scores still outperform state averages.
“We attribute this success to our focus on all of the five components of reading for students in the early grades: phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension, fluency and vocabulary,” district representatives said.
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