Program That Helps Struggling Early Readers Needs Funding

The Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Bryce Fricklas
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was also published at SouthCoast Today.

BOSTON — Despite its position as a leader in education, Massachusetts’ high success rate belies a growing disparity between children with the most resources and those with the least. Now Boston’s education leaders are pushing for legislation that would close the gap.

But these efforts have been frustrated yet again, as the newest set of early literacy bills were assigned to a study by the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Boston-area authors, educators, activists and parents recently gathered at the Massachusetts Statehouse for a hearing on two bills that would create grants for early childhood literacy programs to screen children struggling with reading comprehension, then deliver the intervention they need to become successful early readers.

The bills, S 2173 and H 3926, which were filed by Sen. Joseph Boncore, D-Winthrop, and Rep. Michael Day, D-Stoneham, would create grants to Massachusetts schools to screen for reading difficulties in students between kindergarten and the fifth grade.

“When children are not educated, and cannot read by the age of 5, they’re twice as likely to wind up in the criminal justice system,” said Boncore. “How can we not do this? That’s the message we need to push.”

According to Every Child Reads Massachusetts, an organization that works on policy interventions aimed at improving third-grade reading proficiency, 53 percent of all third graders in Massachusetts do not read at grade level, and that including 71 percent of low-income students, as well as 80 percent of English language learners.

Meagan DeLeon knows firsthand the importance of early reading opportunities. A native of New Bedford, DeLeon spent the first eight years of her life moving between foster homes, none of which encouraged her development as a reader.

“I was in the lowest reading group at school. I spent many years crying a lot,” she remembers. However, her adoptive parents worked with her closely, encouraging her to read and surrounding her with books, and by the sixth grade she learned excitedly that she had advanced to middle reading level.

“If you’re poverty stricken as a child, you don’t have access to books,” said DeLeon.

Now she is the mother of three top students, as well as an activist with Stand for Children, an organization that pushes for improved resources and opportunities for public school students. The organization recognizes the need to create a culture of reading for children, where reading habits are encouraged.

“I don’t want any more children to fall through the cracks, like I did,” she said.

New Bedford is particularly affected by early literacy issues. The New Bedford Birth-3rd Partnership, a group of over 20 organizations that focuses on giving local children the resources they need to become early readers by supplying books and raising awareness, points out that 36 percent of New Bedford faces poverty, more than triple that of nearby Dartmouth and Fairhaven.

New Bedford’s high school graduation rate stands at 60 percent, only two thirds that of Dartmouth and Fairhaven, both standing at around 90 percent. Despite these numbers, New Bedford’s third grade reading proficiency is only about 10 percent lower than that of Fairhaven, at 45 percent; this indicates things are improving.

To respond to these challenges, the New Bedford Birth-3rd Partnership is focused on creating a community-wide response, partnering families, teachers, and community organizations to give young readers the support they need.

“We came up with a plan to train up to 80 members, who would not be the usual suspects like teachers and nonprofit professionals, but might be grandparents or community members looking to do more in the community,” said Titus DosRemedios, the director for research and policy for Strategies for Children, one of the New Bedford Birth-3rd Partnership’s member groups.

“Our goal is to train a multi-lingual, multi-cultural cohort, and then keep in touch with them every month after training to ask how they used the information about encouraging children to read. How did you share it with parents? Did you model literacy practices or word games? We thought that would be an effective model for reaching the hardest to reach families, who might not be in any formal programs.”

These sorts of early community interventions are critical for student success.

“We know that if you are a struggling reader in first grade, 70 percent will still struggle by ninth grade,” said Dr. Nadine Gaab, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, whose research focuses on how auditory and language processing in young children affects the development of language skills. “Students in the 90th percentile may read as many words in three days as a child at the 10th percentile reads in a year.”

Gaab also noted that identifying struggling readers and diagnosing problems like dyslexia can be a particular problem for bilingual students. “They think once kids learn more vocabulary they will catch up. They can fall through the cracks, and often aren’t diagnosed until the end middle school or high school,” said Gaab.

The future for the proposed grant program is unclear after the Legislature’s Education Committee assigned them to a study, a move that often marks the end of the legislative road.

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