NIAGARA FALLS — The pandemic widened gaps in reading. Can one teacher ‘do something about that’?
It is a Thursday in October at Hyde Park Elementary School. Six students surround teacher Richard Evans at the blue table, each staring down at a first-grade-level book about baseball great Willie Mays. Many are struggling.
“What sound does ‘-er’ make?’ ” Evans asks 9-year-old Ke’Arrah Jessie, who focuses through glasses on the page. She puts “hit” and “ter” together to make “hitter.”
Next to her, a boy takes a turn. He pronounces “high” as “hig.” Evans grabs a pen and jots down “night” and other “igh” words for a sidebar phonics refresher on the letter grouping. Meantime, the rest of the class reads on their own. While some page through below-grade-level readers, others plunge into advanced chapter books.
Most of these students were sent home as kindergartners in March 2020. Many spent all of first grade learning remotely from home full- or part-time. Even after schools reopened full time for second grade, Covid-related obstacles remained: masking and distancing rules that prevented group work, quarantining that sent kids home for a week without warning, and young children by then unaccustomed to — and unhappy about — full weeks of school rules.
Says Evans, who came to teaching at age 40 after a career as a computer graphics designer: “All year long, I had kids ask me, ‘Why do I have to be in school for five days?’”
At the beginning of this school year, assessments showed that 15 of Evans’ initial 23 students were reading below grade level. Of those, nine were considered severely behind, lacking basic foundational skills usually learned in first grade. In a typical year, four or five students would be reading at the lowest level, he said.
“I know I have to do something about that. That’s my job,” Evans said, looking back.
There is no time to waste. Third-grade students are under urgent pressure to progress from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Studies show those who don’t read fluently by the end of this school year are more likely to drop out or fail to finish high school on time.
Among those starting out behind is Ke’Arrah, who spent more than a year learning remotely early in the pandemic. Her mother, Ashley Martin, could see the toll on her daughter’s drive to learn. So when Ke’Arrah was assigned to a new elementary school for this year, her mother re-enrolled her in third grade.
The pandemic cut first grade short for Ke’Arrah. To keep the family safe, Martin kept Ke’Arrah home in second grade, too, even when she had the option to return to school in person two days a week. She has four children younger than Ke’Arrah, including a son born just three days before COVID-19 shut down schools and businesses in March 2020.
“It was good for me, but not great for her because she’s on a computer,” said Martin, whose employer, a restaurant, temporarily closed.
Ke’Arrah, who likes math and wants to be a police officer, remembers the pull of her nearby toys as she tried to stay focused on her on-screen teacher.
“She was talking about boring stuff,” Ke’Arrah says. Last year’s transition back to in-person school was rocky, her mother said. She finished behind in math and reluctant to read.
Midway through her second stint in third grade, Ke’Arrah shows progress. Martin has passed her love of the Junie B. Jones series of books to Ke’Arrah, and the pair read them together at bedtime. Small moments become reading lessons, too.
“She’s on the phone, I’m like: ‘Read that to me. Tell me, what does that say?’ We’re out somewhere: ‘Read this to me. What does it say?’ ” Martin says.
Halfway through the school year, a new set of assessments suggests Evans’ strategy is, overall, working.
Ke’Arrah leapfrogged from a bottom level to the upper middle — to the relief of her mother, whose decision to have her daughter repeat third grade appears to be paying off.
“I know it’s going to be embarrassing when she gets older: ‘Oh, you’re a grade behind,’ “ Martin said. “But she’s going to have that knowledge.”
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