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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Michigan 3rd graders must ‘read or flunk’

Justin Jennings went to Purdue with a basketball scholarship — and third-grade reading skills, he recalls. With intensive tutoring help, he completed a degree in African-American Studies, then went on to earn several master’s degrees. Now superintendent of a low-income, low-performing Michigan district, he’s trying to improve reading instruction before the state’s “read-or-flunk” law goes into effect, reports Ron French on Bridge.

Superintendent Justin Jennings looks at donated books at Moon Elementary in Muskegon, Michigan.

Nearly two out of three Muskegon third-graders tested at the lowest level — “not proficient” — last year. From 2009 to 2015, the average third-grader was 1.7 years below grade level. By 2020, most third-graders reading more than a year below grade level will have to repeat the grade. There are exemptions for English Learners, special-needs students and those who show adequate reading skills through school work.

Since the third-grade reading law passed in 2016, Michigan schools have put $80 million into literacy in the early elementary grades, writes French, yet scores are going down statewide and in Muskegon.

Muskegon’s Moon Elementary, which primarily enrolls children from low-income families, has filled its classrooms with donated books, he writes. All the district’s elementary schools have created classroom libraries.

Moon Principal Okeela McBride ticked off the school’s other early literacy efforts:  “We have extended school day at the K-2 level,” McBride said. “We have ChampsMTSSKagan training.” The school is part of the Reading Now Network, an early literacy program organized by superintendents in West Michigan, and uses i-Ready curriculum software to track student progress. . . . Two years ago, the percent of Moon third-graders who tested at a proficient or higher level jumped from 6 percent to 18 percent. But last year, that figure dipped to 11 percent.

“How well children read in third grade often predicts how well they’ll do in the rest of their school career,” writes French.

Helping struggling readers “has a special place in my heart,” said Superintendent Jennings, “because I know how it feels.” An evaluation test (at Purdue) determined Jennings had the reading skills of a third-grader. On the verge of flunking out of school, Jennings reached out to his own third-grade teacher. She made regular trips from Grand Rapids to West Lafayette, Ind., to tutor her former student, the then-six-foot-four Big Ten basketball player hunched over a desk sounding out the words in the children’s book “The Giving Tree.”

Jennings tells his story to students. “I say to them, ‘If this is something I can overcome, you can overcome anything.’”

In Hard Words, APM’s Emily Hanford writes about why so many students struggle with reading. Many teachers haven’t been taught the science of reading, she writes, and believe that children will learn to read naturally in book-rich environments without direct, systematic instruction in phonics.

The Reading Now Network tells schools to pick their own way of teaching reading, but publicizes what schools with above-average reading scores are doing.

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