New FHSD literacy program hopes to improve reading skills
By: Michael R. Smith
A newly-established literacy program in the Francis Howell School District hopes to help struggling reading students catch up to their grade level so they can be successful through the rest of their school career and on into life.
Mary Jo Griffin, head of the Great by Eight program, said that national studies show that 88 percent of first-grade students who have difficulty reading will still have difficulty by the end of fourth grade, and that 75 percent of third-graders who are poor readers will also be poor readers in high school.
“Literacy is our main concern because it under girds everything else in education,”Griffin said. She said the program strives to improve students’ reading skills by third grade…or age 8.
She and a team of about 60 adult volunteers are working to ensure kindergarten through third-grade students are up to their reading grade level — as measured by the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) — so they can avoid future learning issues.
“They’re just children who need one-to-one help,”Griffin said. Currently, the program is in Central and Harvest Ridge elementary schools, which the district identified had the most students needing help.
Griffin believes the program is making a difference. In 2011, she said, 47 percent of FHSD third-graders were tested at basic or below standard reading levels; in 2012 that number decreased to 38 percent.
Her volunteer reading coaches come from a variety of backgrounds: “Students, parents, nurses, retirees—people who care for young children.” After selection to the program, the adult coaches get training in four skills: sight words, letters, sounds, and handwriting. They are then assigned to a student who has been assessed and recommended to the program by their teacher.
Griffin said the coaches meet with their students one to two times a week for 15 to 20 minutes each time. They work through a series of exercises together based upon the needs of the students. Keeping the periods short helps keep student engaged, Griffin explained.
One district employee who volunteered as a coach said he got involved after being made aware of the importance of reading in educational development. He asked not to be identified in order to preserve the anonymity of the student with whom he’s working.
“Not being able to read early on is a huge disadvantage because everything builds upon that. It’s a significant struggle going forward,” he said.
He works with a kindergarten student and the assignment was to confirm whether the student knew the alphabet letters. He said the student needs a bit more practice but that he “was very happy to know (the student) knew all of them.” Notes he made during the sessions will help the teacher determine what if any additional skills help the student needs.
“If (the teacher) feels the student is on target, then I’ll be assigned another student.”
He said he went into the program hoping he could help a student improve their reading skills but quickly found another benefit. “I’ve told others: ‘You need to do this for yourself.’ It’s something that will make you feel good and not just benefit a student.
“I thought it would be a good thing to do for the student. Now, I think it’s a good thing for both of us.”
Griffin said that she plans to expand the program to other schools in the district as she has additional volunteers. More information is available on the district’s Web site.