In less than a minute, Jeremiah Rogers, 6, rattled off 10 words without having to sound them out. It was another sign of success for the Edmonds Elementary first grader and his teacher, Demetress Culler, who has spent many hours in one-on-one sessions with him this year.
Jeremiah, with a big grin, puffed out his chest and announced his feat to a visitor.
“Ten words!” he said, outstretching both his hands.
The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement is giving Clayton County’s Edmonds Elementary in Forest Park and 43 other schools across the state some extra help this year as part of an initiative to improve Georgia’s reading scores.
The $1.6 million program pairs teachers with trained reading coaches.
In its first year, the program is being offered as part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s initiative to improve early literacy. The state encouraged high-needs schools where reading scores are lagging to apply for the program and administrators are looking to expand it next school year.
As the reading coaches fanned into the schools, they discovered inconsistent testing models, outdated teaching techniques, spotty professional development and teachers’ inability to identify struggling readers. The coaches’ notes will be used to advise the governor and legislators on ways to improve reading instruction as the state strives to lower the dropout rate.
“The governor is pondering the same questions that we’ve asked. With all of the money going into our school buildings, why are our children still not reading?” said Pamela Gay, the statewide early literacy director for the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
Reading can be one of the most difficult — and important — subjects for both a elementary student and the child’s teacher, Gay said.
In one kindergarten classroom children’s skills can range from not recognizing the alphabet to being able to whiz through a 20-page book, depending on a child’s exposure to reading habits and ability to grasp new concepts. Parental involvement plays a key role, too.
A child’s failure to pick up basic reading skills will hinder the child in later grades when he or she tackles math word problems or analyzes historical documents.
“Reading is at the core of everything we do,” Gay said.
At Edmonds Elementary, budget cuts have forced administrators to shutter several professional development programs. The school has struggled to get its students — many of whom speak English as a second language— up to grade level.
Karen Davis, armed with a PhD in language and literacy education and 23 years of teaching experience, traverses the school’s hallways observing pre-kindergarten through third grade classes, giving demonstrations and pointers to teachers.
Teachers are given monthly training sessions on how to use testing data, improve teaching skills and know when a child needs help. Students are tested weekly so teachers know exactly where students are struggling.
The goal is to get 95 percent of Edmonds’ students reading on grade level by the end of the school year.
In one classroom, a kindergarten teacher seated her students in small groups based on their reading abilities.
In another, students read aloud in groups while the teacher walked around the room to measure students’ fluency.
“Just as a doctor must give the correct treatment for the illness, so must we give the correct instruction for the areas of weakness,” Davis said. “You wouldn’t want to receive cancer medication if you are having a heart attack.”
Davis has put up displays in the hallways to exhibit teachers’ and their students’ progress, and several teachers have decorated their classrooms with word walls.
“The standards are constantly changing,” said Carrie Sikes, a kindergarten teacher, who said having someone from the state observing her classes was beneficial. “I’m learning just like everyone else. “
Culler has made it a point for Jeremiah to know his goals. She knows the next few weeks could be difficult as he moves on to more advanced reading material.
“I know there will be frustrating times ahead,” she said. “He’ll be moving from sounding out words to comprehending them. That’s a big step.”