School board wants to delay mandatory summer reading camp

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Apr 21, 2014
Photo by: File photo Title 1 teacher Jon Serenius helps students with reading questions at Jonathan Valley Elementary.

The Haywood County Board of Education is asking for more time to help students in third grade across the county adjust to a sudden new state requirement that could keep them in the same grade if they don't pass the first standardized test they've ever taken.

When schools in North Carolina changed to a new, more rigorous curriculum in 2012, the state legislature passed a Read to Achieve initiative to ensure that every third-grader could read on grade level.

Read to Achieve, a part of the Excellent Public Schools Act, offers special help to third-grade students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade. It includes summer reading camp and other interventions to make sure that he or she can read well enough to be able to do fourth-grade work.

Those who fail their end-of-grade test and are unable to attend the mandatory 6-week camp will not be allowed to advance to grade four. If a student does attend the camp and still doesn't read on grade level, he or she will be allowed to advance to forth grade but will receive extra help from teachers.

During its meeting Monday, the school board approved a resolution that asks the state to hold off on implementing the Read to Acheive program until some issues can be addressed, namely how to ensure those who need the camp can overcome attendance barriers.

If the request is approved, the school system would continue with local policy and procedure until third-graders have more time to adapt to the more rigorous curriculum and for the school system to plan for the camps. However, Bill Nolte, associate superintendent, is unsure whether the state will grant the request.

“We think it’s inherently unfair for kids who are in third grade now who have just been operating under the new curriculum for a year and a half to be expected to perform as if they’ve been under the new curriculum since they’ve been in kindergarten,” Nolte said. “That’s our biggest concern. Do you have that level of expectation that 100 percent of them be on grade level or have to go to these required summer camps?”

Third-grade classrooms are already focused on remediation, and provide opportunities for students to receive extra help when needed, Nolte said. He said the schools provide reading specialists and Title 1 teachers, after-school tutors and remediation specialists to help students, as well as summer camps and reading camps.

“But we didn’t look at a kid say 'you’re going to be retained,'” Nolte said. “In other places in North Carolina, this drastic approach may be appropriate, but it’s not appropriate here.”

Heather Hollingsworth, principal at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, said her third-graders were feeling stressed about the ever-changing reading requirements.

“It is legislation that sounds good on paper but everybody who’s ever been a teacher knows it doesn’t work in practice,” Hollingsworth said.

Board member Steven Kirkpatrick didn’t hesitate to make a motion to approve the resolution Monday night.

“I am a parent of a third-grader and when my third-grader comes in and breaks down and cries, there’s something wrong,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m behind this. I’m totally against a lot of stuff that the state is putting on to our teachers and kids because of this.”

“As a parent of another third-grader, I would like to second this motion,” board member Jim Harley Francis added.

Unrealistic policy

The summer reading camps, which were optional in the past, but could become mandatory this summer, will be instructed by about 40 teachers and principals who have been hired based on their proven effectiveness in reading performance. In terms of location, Nolte said he was unsure whether the third-graders would be attending a camp at one local school, or if more than one camp location will be needed.

"What we’re thinking right now is we may need two sites, one on the East end (of the county) and one on the West end," Nolte said. "But we may be able to have one site. We won’t know till EOG test scores are provided."

While the state predicts a 40-50 percent fail rate on the EOG testing, Nolte said Haywood County's student fail rate generally fell at 20 percent.

The state allotted about $86,000 to the school system to spend on Read to Achieve programs, such as the summer camp. Nolte said the funding would be used to hire teachers, buy classroom materials, buy food and pay bus drivers.

"It sounds like a lot (of money) but it doesn't allow you to go every student's home, provide breakfast, lunch, a summer camp and hire certified teachers," Nolte "It's underfunded and ill conceived.They didn’t think much about what it actually takes to teach children."

While it is possible that some students who don't attend the camp could be held back, Nolte said having a few more  third-graders in classrooms would not be a problem. Currently, third-grade classrooms are capped at 24 students.

"Our schools are used to moving teachers between grade levels," Nolte said. "Each year we have move a teacher around — it's something we do pretty frequently, so we won’t do it any more than normal."

Nolte said the Read to Achieve legislation was a plan that sounded good but was unrealistic to implement.

"It would make much more sense to me to restore the $5 million and the 138 positions lost that were from our school system in January of '09," Nolte said. "It would do a lot more to improve scores than some ill-conceived plan."

Concerns in writing

The resolution states that the Haywood County School Board supports the idea of third-grade reading proficiency, the reading assessment measures and the comprehensive reading plan as part of the Read to Achieve initiative. However, the resolution cites several concerns with the policy.

According to the resolution, the legislation doesn’t take into consideration the developmental needs of individual students and doesn't take into account a student's reading growth when deciding to send a student to a summer reading camp.

In addition, the resolution states that the Read to Achieve legislation has increased the burden on teachers, students and families during the third-grade year by placing all its testing focus on the third grade.

“They were already stressed before because it was their first time taking the EOG (End of Grade) test, and this has only made it worse,” Hollingsworth said referring to her third-graders at JVES.

The resolution declares concerns about the requirement of the summer reading camp. Nolte said transportation to and from the reading camps could be a problem for many children. While the school system is not required to provide transportation, Nolte said he didn't see any other option.

“Fifty percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch. Can they even get to a summer camp?“ Nolte asked. “Does someone have a car? Can they get there without a school bus? We have about 3,500 who kids ride a bus every day. That’s 40 percent of kids, so 40 percent of our third-graders may not be able to get to a summer camp.”

The resolution requests that the Read to Achieve legislation “be applied earlier in a students' reading development and the requirements stretched over a longer period.”

Furthermore, the resolution claims that the Read to Achieve initiative “takes away the autonomy of the teacher to differentiate instruction to meet the individualized needs of their students, particularly with regard to retention.”

The resolution has been posted on the Haywood County School Board's website and will be sent to state elected officials.