Reading Level: Fort Worth makes literacy push

Mayor Price reading to kids

Fort Worth 100X25 FWTX

Hearing that only 30 percent of all Fort Worth third-graders are reading on grade level was “staggering” to Lloyd Day, a longtime public school principal who now runs a center that supports people with learning disabilities.

Professor Mike Sacken, a veteran educator at Texas Christian University, also found the 30 percent rate “pretty stunning” even though he is well aware of the challenges faced by students at schools where he has mentored educators for years.

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Both educators are encouraged by some aspects of plans announced Sept. 26 to form a Fort Worth literacy partnership of city, school, business, nonprofit and other entities to have 100 percent of third-graders reading at grade level by the year 2025. The initiative is tagged 100X25 FWTX.

Mayor Betsy Price, Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner and BNSF Railroad Chair Matt Rose, who will head the partnership, outlined the plans at Oakhurst Elementary, whose student academic performance exceeds that at other schools.

Other supporters include foundations, nonprofits and The Commit! Partnership, which will analyze data for the initiative.

Day, who was an Arlington school administrator before being named chief of operations at the Learning Center of North Texas, said he was particularly impressed with Fort Worth’s planned focus on preschool education and on using regular assessments to tailor instruction to individual student needs.

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“The biggest surge in public education is differentiated learning,” he said. “It meets the needs of kids with learning difficulties but it also meets the needs of kids at the other end of the spectrum.”

“Early childhood teachers are more likely to look at best practices rather than specific programs,” he said. “You assess as you go so you know what kids need. Conceptually it could work. There has to be commitment across the board.”

That’s the purpose of the literacy partnership, said Charles Carroll, who joined the Fort Worth district as chief academic officer in June. He held a similar position in Keller.

Carroll said that Scribner, who came to Fort Worth last fall from Arizona, developed the 100X25 FWTX plan to coordinate with Gov. Greg Abbott’s 60x30Tx initiative to have 60 percent of Texas adults with college degrees or certificates by 2030.

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“Dr. Scribner took the kernel of an idea of what Gov. Abbott put out there and localized it to what is relevant to our district and kids,” Carroll said. “He modified to 100 by 25, what was most pressing for our kids.”

As required by state law, Carroll said, the district regularly screens students at all grade levels to gather achievement data beyond what the state-mandated tests measure. That’s where the third-grade literacy figures came from, he said.

However, Carroll said, the district has recently begun using a different online screening program. He said officials believe the new screening, which will be administered in class three times a year, will provide better data for teachers to use to tailor instruction and for Commit! to analyze to measure improvement.

All students at all grades levels will be given the 20-minute online test at the beginning, middle and end of the school year, Carroll said.

The initiative focuses on third-graders because by that year students need to read well in order to do well in higher-level subjects such as science and social studies, he said.

Studies show that 75 percent of students who don’t read well by third grade may drop out of school because they can’t read and comprehend those higher-level subjects.

“The STAAR scores don’t add a lot of value to what we do,” Carroll said, referring to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. “They measure relatively low. You don’t have to be on grade level to pass. So that number doesn’t tell us much.”

The grade-level screening helped officials determine that younger students were having the most difficulty with nonfiction and comprehension, which is more helpful in determining whether teachers are helping students progress, he said.

“The partnership came about as a means to have a collective impact, to row together to impact the achievement of our students,” Carroll said.

BNSF’s Rose was chosen to head the partnership because business has a strong interest in improving the education of the future workforce.

David Berzina, the former vice president for economic development at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, said the partnership is much needed.

“This seems like a tremendous public-private partnership with big hitters,” said Berzina, who now runs his own economic development business. “Just like football players can go anywhere, companies can go anywhere. They need to be where there’s a qualified work force.

“This is a terrific initiative starting at kindergarten or first grade. It could produce dividends for decades to come,” he said.

Scribner said officials will probably spend the next year looking at the multitude of reading programs and teaching methods already in place in the district so they can find the best ones to replicate at other schools.

But Carroll said that won’t stop teachers from using assessment tests to focus on new strategies to help students.

“We’re putting the airplane together as we fly,” he said. “We’re pushing very hard. When we finish the transitions this year, it will be very good. But we’ll keep working while we’re putting the systems in place.”

TCU’s Sacken said he likes the plan’s focus on teaching methods, sometimes called best practices. But he is concerned that officials seem to be promising results that are probably not achievable in nine years – if ever.

“We already know from No Child Left Behind there is no such thing,” he said. Even top-rated private schools can’t promise that all children will read on grade level. “That’s like TCU saying all our freshmen from 2016 are going to graduate from college,” he said.

While there are many good teaches who can share their successful strategies with others, Sacken said, educators can’t overcome every factor in a child’s life.

“You can’t turn schools into a magic feather in schools marked by inequity,” he said. “It’s important to try to do everything you can to get more kids to a better place.”

But Sacken is concerned about what happens if, despite everyone’s best efforts, the district doesn’t reach its 100 percent third-grade literacy goal.

“If we start out saying every kid will be on grade level, it will look like a failure in the end,” he said.

On the other hand, Sacken said, if the district improves the literacy rate by 20 percent among kids still facing the same challenges, “that should have people pouring into streets cheering.”

“But if they promise too much, you can’t blame the kids so you throw the teachers under the bus,” he said.

FWISD’s Carroll insists that no one will point fingers if the district doesn’t meet what many believe is a lofty but attainable goal.

“The superintendent came up with the nine years. He describes it as an aspirational goal,” he said. “I’ve told the principals, systems don’t operate effectively by pointing fingers.

“When you fail, we do, too. That’s how systems work. If a student fails, we failed that student. Leave placing the blame out of it.”