Rags to reading

Published 9:52 pm Thursday, November 1, 2012

In Suffolk, coming from a poor family does not necessarily mean a child will be a slower reader, according to Virginia Department of Education data.

Third-graders at Northern Shores are more likely to be better readers and free from poverty compared to those in Suffolk’s other public elementary schools, but reading skills and family income are less aligned at the other end of the scale.

In 2011, close to 87 percent of Northern Shores third-graders were proficient or advanced readers and a little more than 17 percent of the school’s students qualified for free or reduced lunches.

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On the other hand, at Suffolk’s worst-performing public elementary school for third-grade reading, Elephant’s Fork, only 67.5 percent of kids were proficient or advanced. However, about the same percentage of students were on the free or reduced lunch program as at Mack Benn Jr., and a smaller percentage got the lunch benefits than at Booker T. Washington.

At both of those other two schools, third-graders performed better on reading assessments — by about 6.7 percent — than at Elephant’s Fork.

A spokesman from nonprofit group Education Consumers Foundation, which compiled the Virginia Department of Education data, wrote in an email that it debunks the myth that students perform poorly because of poverty.

Federal Title I funding provides for 18 reading specialists spread across seven of Suffolk’s 12 public elementary schools.

They “work with students one-on-one and individually to improve and enhance the students’ ability to read,” with the ultimate goal of every student reading at or above their grade level by the start of third grade, district Deputy Superintendent Jacqueline Chavis wrote in an email.

To improve early reading skills, Chavis said, the district has also introduced a reading plan for all students, stages individual interventions, and conducts parent workshops.

It also works with community agencies like the Suffolk Early Childhood Development Commission on interventions prior to students beginning school, works with administrators, and provides remediation during and after school and through the summer with two separate programs.

Diane Foster, a Suffolk School Board member, former teacher and certified reading specialist with a master’s degree in reading instruction, says a household income-reading level connection does exist.

“That’s why the federal government gives Title I funds (to schools) that have a high percentage of free- and reduced-lunch students,” she said.

She would like to see reading specialists at most Suffolk public schools, particularly alternative school Turlington Woods, but “we don’t have the funds right now in the budget.”

“Probably the most drastic place I have seen (for reading skills) is alternative schools,” she said, adding that a lot of those children were from foster care and had “incredibly low reading levels.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, state reading scores were improved in all Suffolk public elementary schools except Hillpoint, and six beat the state average for reading in the Standards of Learning, district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw noted.

“Over the last couple of years, the school system has seen more students ready for kindergarten than in previous years,” she wrote in an email. “This will have a positive impact on the reading ability of all students.”