By Chris Kieffer
OKOLONA – Third grade teacher Jill Buchanan sat at a table with six students in her Okolona Elementary classroom on Wednesday morning.
Together they read a passage about polar bears in the Arctic, with Buchanan pausing at various points to ask the pupils questions about the text.
Meanwhile, other students gathered in different sections of her classroom – some read novels from their desks, others sat at a table and worked together on an activity and a fourth group sat at computers loaded with a literacy program.
Aiding Buchanan’s efforts to help those students were Angie Caldwell and Olivia Pasterchick, literacy teachers with the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction (CELI).
The two generally spend two full days each week at the 272-student kindergarten to fourth-grade school helping its educators better teach literacy skills. They observe teachers and provide feedback, lead trainings, help with planning and activities and also assist with small-group lessons. Their presence is among the many tools being used by the Okolona School District to help its students become better readers.
Last year, 40 percent of the school’s third-graders scored minimal – the lowest category – on their state language arts test, and only 16 percent were proficient or better.
“We are doing things so much differently this year,” first-year Superintendent Dexter Green said.
The stakes are higher, too.
Beginning next school year, all Mississippi third-graders must be reading on grade level by the end of the year in order to advance to fourth grade. That is when the so-called “third-grade reading gate,” which was passed by state lawmakers in 2013 and signed by Gov. Phil Bryant, will go into effect.
The idea is that third grade is when students need to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” In other words, the law is based on the belief that students who can’t read will fall behind in higher grades, when they are required to use reading to develop critical-thinking skills across all subjects.
Proponents of the law praise the emphasis on literacy and say the extra time in third grade will help struggling students develop those skills before entering higher grades. Opponents worry about the social toll on students who are retained multiple years.
Regardless, next year’s third-graders will be the first to be tested during the spring on an exam that will determine whether they are ready to advance to fourth grade. Those who fail to meet the required score will have a second chance to take an alternative test. The law also allows “good cause exemptions,” such as for students with a disability for which the exam is not appropriate and for those who have had two or more years of intensive supports.
Officials from both the Tupelo and Lee County school districts said the law will not dramatically change the way they teach reading. Both have said that literacy has been an emphasis of teacher training and that they have been using screening exams to diagnose struggling students early and give them extra help.
However, it may force them to do so even more quickly, said Lee County Chief Academic Officer Lisa Eldridge.
“Kindergartners we may have waited to give a little extra time to mature, we have to look at them more closely now,” she said.
Amy Ferguson, Response to Intervention administrator for Tupelo Schools, notes the district recently began using flexible grouping in its elementary schools so students are placed with peers of similar ability levels when learning reading and math.
The district uses the results of four different examinations designed to show a student’s reading level – as well as teacher grades – before promoting elementary pupils to the next grade. It also implemented a Barton program to aid those with dyslexic tendencies.
“I don’t think the third-grade reading assessment will be a big issue for our district,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden.
Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said a big key for his district will be making sure parents understand the law’s new requirements. The school system will have a district-wide parent meeting about the new law later this spring.
Other districts will need more support. The legislature approved $9.5 million to provide literacy coaches, and the MDE has employed 24 coaches and five regional coordinators who work with 50 schools across 30 school districts.
“Our goal is to build teacher capacity,” said State Literacy Director Kymyona Burk. “…We want the teacher to be able to provide those sound strategies to their students so that when we are gone, it is sustainable.”
However, the funding amount was less than the $15 million that Bryant originally proposed. And the number of coaches is far short of the state’s original goal of 75. Even that number would have been smaller than what Florida and Alabama used for similar initiatives.
Schools were chosen based on the last two years of state test data for third-grade language arts, said Tenette Smith, assistant state literacy director.
“We wanted to make sure our coaching support was effective,” Smith said. “To be effective, we needed to make sure they were not spread too thin.”
Okolona Elementary was among those to receive an MDE literacy coach, in addition to the support it receives from CELI.
Green, the district’s superintendent, also noted other efforts, such as the addition of an Accelerated Reader program that allows students to earn points for passing tests on books they read independently and of a Study Island computer program that gives students individualized problems.
Green keeps updated data on the number of AR quizzes students have taken, as well as the total number of Study Island questions pupils in each grade level have attempted and the percentage they have gotten correct.
“It will be a huge challenge,” CELI Director Angela Rutherford said of the efforts at Okolona and many other schools statewide. “But you need to do something different. You can’t keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing or you’ll get the same results.”