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Solving the 'math of reading' in Baltimore

Op-ed: What have you done to ensure Baltimore's kids are on track in reading?

The vision of the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading is that all city children read proficiently by the end of third grade. This is essential: An important shift in a child's academic career happens in the third grade — until then children are learning to read, but after that they are reading to learn.

The results of the new state tests released last week are a far cry from that vision. The tests, known as PARCC and most recently given in 11 states and the District of Columbia, showed that 20.4 percent of city students meet or exceed English Language Arts/Literacy standards versus the statewide average of 38.1 percent. Moreover, within Baltimore, a devastating disparity persists, with only 17.5 percent of African-American students meeting or exceeding expectations while 45.6 percent of white students do.

Central to these results is what can be called "the math of reading": City students' concentrated poverty and intense academic needs are not balanced by the city schools' limited resources. How do we create solutions when that math simply doesn't add up?

There are hopeful glimpses of the solution within the city. These include schools that consistently beat the odds, such as Liberty Elementary — where 36.6 percent of third grade students meet or exceed expectations in English Language Arts/Literacy standards. Other schools are starting to make significant strides, such as Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary, which showed a marked increase on reading assessment scores over the course of the last school year.

Although their execution varies, there are some common themes in these schools' successes:

•Data: Schools are required to give reading assessments three times a year, but schools that beat the odds administer these tests more frequently to track progress. They also make sure parents and children understand the data and the common goal of progress.

•Teachers are students too: Teaching literacy is hard. These schools have someone in-house to help teachers learn.

•Again, the "math": Children learning to read need small group and individual instruction. More time equals more resources. Few schools have completely solved this, but the most resourceful raise funds, cut traditional line items, recruit volunteers or use traditional staff in non-traditional ways to maximize the ratio of teachers and tutors per child.

•Ice cream: Celebrating progress regularly with awards fosters motivation.

•Principals: Strong ones drive results. Period.

The city school system recently released a proposed literacy strategy. We will be working to support and appropriately question this plan based on what has worked locally as well as in comparable cities.

But, while classroom instruction is a huge part of the equation, the balance must come from all of us. There is a role, whether small or large, for everyone to play to ensure our children read well.

The Baltimore Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has spent almost two years doing research and talking to parents and more than 70 organizations across Baltimore about how this city can ensure all children read proficiently. We have found that another math, the "math of the collective," can produce results. Beyond quality instruction, children need access to books at home and in their communities, they need to be healthy physically and emotionally, and they need to attend school daily.

There are small ways that each of us can contribute. Some examples:

Malika Jones, a mother who lives in Cherry Hill, runs a storytelling program from her front steps in the summer, so neighborhood kids can read stories with her and her son. Members of an East Baltimore church have gone door to door to visit families with children who have been chronically absent in an effort to remove barriers to attendance, even providing uniforms and school supplies. Cork Hardin, who works at an after-school program in Charles Village, spends time talking with children about their feelings to help them understand themselves better. And city police Det. Sharisse Smith tutors a first grader weekly at the Furman L. Templeton School.

These are just a handful of very small but extremely powerful examples of how each of us can find a way to contribute our time and talents to build on what's already working in Baltimore so that the "math of reading" might stop working against our kids.

Kimberly Manns is program director of the Baltimore Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (bmorereadmore.org); her email is KimberlyM@ffee.org.

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