UPPING LITERACY

In their second year, Tennessee’s summer reading camps show improved skills for some

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students in April at Farmington Elementary School in Germantown.

The results are preliminary and incomplete, but there is some evidence that a summer reading program for Tennessee elementary school students helped many to improve their skills.

More than 8,000 rising first-, second- and third-grade students spent part of their summers in state-funded literacy camps, a significant increase from 2016. While testing data is available for only half of participating students, those who were assessed grew in their reading accuracy by an average of 4 percentage points from the start of the summer to the end.

The program, which involves extensive reading and writing by students and emphasizes comprehension and reading enjoyment, is in its second year. The camps are funded by the state’s Read to Be Ready Grant Program, which disbursed $8.5 million among 200 schools, compared to a dozen schools last year.

To determine the program’s impact, the state used pre- and post- benchmark assessments of students’ reading skills. Results analyzed for 4,499 students show that those students grew in their reading accuracy from about 80 percent to 85 percent.

The assessment found that students surveyed also grew in their comprehension of reading questions, from about 65 percent to 67 percent.

“The results today simply reinforce what we believe,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a press release. “When students have the opportunity to read high-quality, authentic texts and are deeply engaged in learning experiences around those texts, they will thrive.”

Chandler Hopper, a department spokeswoman, said the state did not have both pre- and post-data for all students. “In some cases, the student may not have been present for both pre- and post- data collection,” Hopper said, “and because we cannot definitively explain each missing data point at this time, we removed incomplete student records from these pre- and post- analyses. But this did not substantively change our findings.”

In addition, 16 out of 29 Shelby County sites weren’t included in the analysis because they were also a part of Shelby County Schools’ new summer academies. Hopper said there was a difference in curriculum and assessment between Shelby County Schools sites and the rest of the grant sites, and so they weren’t included in the analysis.

The Tennessee departments of Education and Human Services have earmarked $30 million for the summer programs over the next three years as part of a major literacy initiative, which aims to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient in reading by 2025.

Tennessee still has a long way to go. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. But McQueen has said she is hopeful the Read to be Ready programs will get students there.

“I had a chance to visit several camps over the summer and was so encouraged by what I was seeing,” McQueen said.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.