Caught in the Middle: A New Literacy Program in HISD Targets the Oft Overlooked In-Between Years

Folly Amagbodonon says he knows reading is important.
Folly Amagbodonon says he knows reading is important.
Lawrence Knox

Thirteen-year-old Folly Amagbodonon is part of a great experiment. Like most of his classmates in his seventh grade English class at Fondren Middle School, he started the year reading below grade level. From his seat in the front row of Laquitha Dean’s reading and writing class, the intensity on his face is impossible to miss.

His “Bible” is the dictionary on his desk, as it is on every desk in this room. He leans forward as Dean reads, stops and asks questions that students wrestle over out loud to show they comprehend. Taking a break a few minutes later, he intones solemnly: “Lots of jobs require reading. Everything revolves around reading. Reading is an essential part of life.” Someone’s been drinking the Kool-Aid.

On March 9, when Fondren Middle School Principal Monique Lewis stood before the Houston Independent School District board, her news caught the attention of even the most distracted trustees. Twelve percent of the students at Fondren were reading at the pre-K to second grade level. Another 51 percent were reading at the third to fifth grade level. Meaning 63 percent of all her students were reading below their grade levels at the beginning of the school year when they were tested.

How does a kid reading at no more than the second grade level get to sixth grade?

“I can’t concern myself with how it happens,” Lewis says two weeks later while seated in a Fondren conference room. “I would waste a significant amount of time doing that. If I start pointing fingers and pulling my hair out trying to figure out how did you get to sixth grade without learning how to read, it wastes too much time.”

This is Lewis’s fifth year at Fondren, but before that the school was a revolving door for principals who came in promising all manner of grand improvements and departed quietly. In her campus turnaround plan for the 2016-17 year, Lewis stated, “For the past 2 years, Fondren has undergone high levels of teacher turnover.” She cited the 50 percent turnover in its teaching staff the summer before she took over. The following year she encouraged 11 teachers to leave.

Data from the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness test, or STAAR, showed a reading score decline in all three grades in 2014, and in 2015 growth in sixth and eighth grades but another decline in seventh. As a so-called “world school” in that period, Fondren received “75 to 100 newcomer students representing 12 different languages.” One-quarter of those students, she wrote, were pre-literate and required hours of special work to prepare them for testing.

The district’s Apollo turnaround project for troubled schools helped Fondren students in math, in which they even got distinctions for their high test scores, Lewis says proudly. But clearly something more immediate and intensive had to be done about reading. For two years in a row, the school had received the dreaded IR (Improvement Required) from the Texas Education Agency, but things were looking up and Fondren had finally gotten off that list.

The same school that had been on IR is also designated an IB school, meaning it offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate program for top students. Talk about a split personality. “For the last five years, sixth graders have come in significantly below grade level,” Lewis says. “They have not met accountability in four years. We’ve tried a myriad of things.”

So starting this year, the school is trying one more thing, adopting the district’s new Literacy in the Middle program. It calls for emphasis on reading and writing, and Fondren set aside an extra block of time each day to do that. It dispenses with a lot of teacher lecturing and in its place students are encouraged to engage in discussion. Teachers read to students and question them about what’s been said.

Other core classes such as math, science and social studies are taught at grade level, but if students need them, they have access to books in those classes that are written at a lower difficulty level. The idea is to get across concepts to students at whatever reading level they attain. All teachers in all subjects are expected to be involved in reading and able to spot problems in that area as well as in their specialized subject area.

“The No. 1 issue we look at in middle school is comprehension,” says Mechiel Rozas, now in her second year as HISD’s director of secondary literacy. “Can you really understand, articulate, synthesize what you’re reading? This is a challenge for many of our middle school students, including our ELL [English Language Learners] students.” [The school was 53 percent Hispanic and 56 percent African-American in 2015-16.] “A whole world is opened up around comprehension. For many of our ELL students, they will read and read and read and it’s like eating and eating and never getting full.”

In contrast to the reams of paper and computer space that have been devoted to literacy problems at the elementary and high school levels, middle school literacy study is virtually an undiscovered continent and apparently a scary one to a lot of would-be -explorers.

Anyone looking online for scholarly papers or programs about the middle school years won’t find much at all. It seems students and their teachers have been left pretty much alone to muddle through any way they can — particularly troubling if a kid arrives at middle school and can’t understand the textbooks he’s been given. This lack of interest is something acknowledged by both Lewis and Rozas.

“Elementary kids are cute; it’s the beginning. High school’s very sexy. Where are you going, what are you doing with your life,” says Rozas. “Middle school is [she pauses]…I used to have negative feelings about middle school. They put on different personalities every two minutes. It’s a unique person who teaches middle school. It’s a messy time.”

But Rozas, the parent of a middle schooler soon to begin high school, says she has changed her mind. “I think it’s an amazing time. Because to that same kid who’s changing personalities every two minutes, the whole world is an opportunity. They consider everything an option.”

To many adults, however, middle school remains a place they still don’t want to visit, let alone spend a whole lot of time in, Rozas says. “That negative side of beliefs about middle school, I think that’s what kept people from engaging in middle school.”

Educational consultant and former HISD superintendent Dr. Billy Reagan has another way of looking at it.
“I think it’s kind of the forgotten area. We work on elementary and then we forget about them till they’re in high school and then it’s too late.”

***
The message at Fondren this year is that reading is the key to doing anything in life.
The message at Fondren this year is that reading is the key to doing anything in life.
Lawrence Knox

“They kicked it up from last year,” says Hector Hernandez, 12. He and other seventh grade reading students interviewed all agreed Fondren’s reading and writing program this year is harder, deeper and requires more of them. Asked what’s important to becoming a better reader, he answers “stamina,” and when that’s received with a puzzled look, he explains: “If you don’t have stamina, you stop reading faster. If you don’t have stamina, you get distracted.”

Hector had been reading more but says when homework overwhelmed him in sixth grade, he cut down his reading time. His biggest challenge is “finding the main idea. I’m still kind of shaky on that.”

Michelle Austin, 12, says she loves reading now but hadn’t before. “In the beginning I didn’t understand the point of reading. Really didn’t think it was meaningful.” Now when she goes home, she says, she reads 30 minutes to an hour before she goes to sleep. “My other schools didn’t read as much as we do now.”

Her biggest challenge: the inferences they are supposed to draw from their reading. This is showing not only that they understand the material but that based upon the action, they can guess what might happen next. “I struggle with it. I kind of still don’t like it. But I do it,” Michelle says.

Eilyn Caceres, 13, thought she was fine because she read a lot, but found out she was behind. Her stumbling block was pronunciation. “Now I read more than I used to and I pronounce the words.” Her biggest challenge, she says, is being assigned books that don’t interest her.

Pronunciation was also problematic for Ninel Lopez, 12. “I’m bilingual; it’s really hard to pronounce them right. Now that I’m reading more and I practice it more, it has definitely improved.”

For Olushina Olofinsawe, 12, reading was a struggle. For the life of him he couldn’t predict what might happen next in a story based on what he’d read. But he got better with practice, he says, and now reads for fun as well and has lots of books at home.

Without getting too wonky about it, there are said to be two kinds of readers — those who read for the beauty or pleasure of a text and those who read for purpose. Of course, someone can be both or, in the case of a non-reader, neither. Students in Dean’s class were a mixture, but a pragmatic theme was a constant.

“You need reading for everything in life. So, if you read, it might make your life easier,” Ninel says.

“You need reading to get jobs, money, to have a successful life,” Olushina says.

Students are expected to discuss what happened in the story so far and what they think will happen next.
Students are expected to discuss what happened in the story so far and what they think will happen next.
Lawrence Knox

And with Michelle, Eilyn and Hector saying in turn that they hope to grow up to be a pediatrician, a veterinarian and a brain surgeon, respectively, they look at reading as a tool they must employ to get them where they want to go.
Although Principal Lewis said there is a real problem among her students with a lack of books in the home and Dean said she doesn’t see much parental support, most of the kids interviewed said they had books at home and had observed their parents reading. In addition, they have ready access to classroom libraries as well as the school library.

So why are they behind and why had they initially not read more? Is it too many video games, too much TV and homework, too many competing activities? Classroom instruction that awards them points for recognizing words but doesn’t pause long enough to understand whether kids know what those words mean?

“Over the last ten years, Texas as a whole has been stuck on fluency. If I can call the words very quickly, I’m a good reader. And boy, take a boy, and tell him fast-first-best, you’ve got them,” Rozas says. “When you look at who’s struggling, it’s typically our male students. Literally in the state of Texas for over ten years, it was just ‘I need to be a fast reader.’”

At the start of the year, Lewis decided to slow things down and initiated a process the school called Intake. It took three weeks to test all 950 Fondren students (350 of them sixth graders) on their reading, but she says it was worth it. “If you don’t do it, you know what you are doing? You’re turning off all the lights and you’re trying to walk around this building and do so successfully without being able to see anything. You’re stabbing in the dark.”

Taking time to test the students meant teachers started the year with a good idea of what each student’s reading level was, Lewis says. Ratcheting up the degree-of-difficulty factor are students who transfer in during the school year. Dean got one new seventh grade student the week before the STAAR test. For some, moving up can appear to be a monumental task, which is probably why Lewis chooses to focus on “growth” rather than “meeting standards” at grade level.

Middle school these days needs to build on the changes that have already happened at the elementary level, Rozas says. Students coming into middle school from HISD have usually been through the Literacy by Three program, she says. “They’ve gotten lots of time reading texts; they were seen in a small group. They know who they are as readers and writers. They can’t go into a traditional middle school with rows and the teacher pontificates for 45 minutes on their favorite subject,” Rozas says. “That really mandated for us what we needed to do for our students.

“We’re not trying to re-create our educational experiences because kids are heading into a future that we can’t predict. But what we are trying to replicate is power readers. If we can create students that are voracious readers and writers, then STAAR becomes something that is a nonissue, just something we do, like taking attendance.”
There are afterschool and Saturday tutorials, but Lewis says she’s learned she can’t trust students to go to them. “So we must get them while they’re here. We have interventions throughout the day.”

Students are tested on what they’ve learned each day on that day, Lewis says. “We can’t wait till Friday to find out if you’ve mastered inferencing, summarizing. I have to know today so that if there’s an adjustment I need to make for Tuesday’s lessons, I can do that right away.”

Calling the daily “exit ticket” check a “game changer,” Lewis says, for example, that if three kids out of 30 obviously didn’t understand a lesson, the next day the teacher can pull them out in a small group and go over the material again.

Susan Szabo is someone who’s cared about reading literacy for middle schoolers and other students for a long time. A professor of reading at Texas A&M University — Commerce, she co-authored a study in 2012 examining reading levels in each year of the state’s STAAR test. 

Using several readability studies and averaging the results, Szabo found that sixth graders were being asked to read at the seventh to eighth grade level, seventh graders at the eighth grade level and, paradoxically enough, eighth graders were looking at reading passages on the seventh grade level on the STAAR test.
When she called TEA and asked if a readability study was done on the STAAR reading passages, she was told no. TEA checked that the content was aligned with the state standards for what children should know, commonly referred to as TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), but there was no attempt to see if the kids could read it, Szabo says she was told.

Szabo doesn’t think much of the STAAR test or its predecessors over the past 15 years for other reasons. “Teaching to the test does not teach critical thinking. It teaches test-taking skills, which is different. Thus, our students and young adults today don’t know how to think about books, as they have focused on reading passages and test-taking skills.”

She sees little to no benefit in making reading levels so tough on standardized tests. Third graders today are doing work that used to wait till the fifth grade, she says. “Also you have to realize that grade levels are arbitrary and found only in school; not real life. Most things adults read are actually at a 5th-8th grade reading level,” she wrote.
Students may be unable to understand what they are reading because of a poor vocabulary or because they don’t have any background knowledge about what is being read, Szabo says. The latter reason is why it’s so important for teachers to engage in field trips and other methods of exposing students to new experiences they may not have had, she says.

Szabo’s research was reinforced by that of former HISD superintendent Reagan, whose Unlimited Access Educational Systems Inc. firm did a 2013 study over the 2011-13 school years and found that most kids couldn’t understand their textbooks and that little progress had been made in getting them to do so.
Reagan says he regrets going to the middle school format while he was superintendent. “I think it was the greatest mistake in my career, being part of creating middle school. We de-emphasized reading teachers, and I think that’s a major factor in what we have today. When we had K-8, we had people trained to teach reading. That has been weakened substantially.”

A lot of what Szabo advocates are measures adopted in Fondren’s reading program. She believes in group reading continuing through the eighth grade rather than teacher lectures. Teachers need to do interactive read-alouds and then discuss the text, as is done in Dean’s classroom. The benefits of practicing writing should not be overlooked because if it’s not performed regularly, a huge gap can develop between reading and writing abilities, she says.
“Reading is a tool, not a subject,” Szabo says. “It’s a skill that has to be learned to do anything.”

***
Teacher Laquitha Dean reads to students, with frequent stops for questions and explanations.
Teacher Laquitha Dean reads to students, with frequent stops for questions and explanations.
Lawrence Knox

Laquitha Dean says she always wanted to be a reading teacher. As a youngster, she got her mother to set her up with a board on an easel so she could start giving reading lessons to her six-year-old brother. “I’ve been doing classroom management since I was ten years old.”

At first the transition from telling students what she knows to getting them to show her what they know was difficult, she says. “The hardest part has been the pullback, to allow the kids to show me.” A lot of her class time is spent in guided or group reading as well as independent reading.

Some of the students have language barriers. “I tell them I love your culture but I need to see you speaking the language you’re going to be using on these exams,” Dean says. Even the alphabet is a challenge; they may be used to different letters and aren’t always sure of the correct order in English, she says.

When they go to the library as a class to get out books, she pushes them. “They can’t pick picture books. I need you to push. Just because you’re reading at the sixth-grade level doesn’t mean you have to stay there.”

More than half a million books were dealt out to teachers as part of the Literacy in the Middle initiative, Rozas said. All were aligned to the campuses’ makeup and needs. “If we had a campus that had large volumes of kids who were at risk and reading far below grade level, they received different books than a campus that was all Vanguard GT. We had a core sixth grade order but we slid up and down based upon the need. It was also culturally responsive. If you have a predominantly African-American campus, children need to see themselves in books, and that would look a little different than a campus that was predominantly Hispanic.”

New education initiatives are a dime a dozen and there’s no knowing if this will have lasting value. Rozas thinks it will, saying, “Before you would just hear they can’t read but you didn’t have any specifics, you didn’t have any resources. That’s why the initiative is so exciting.”

The results of the STAAR tests won’t be known until the end of the year, but other tests that the school has done appear to show progress.

On the school’s internal February comprehensive exams, covering math, reading and writing in certain grades, there was an increase from 43 percent last year to 71 percent this year of all students passing eighth grade reading. ELL students in that group improved from 28 percent to 53 percent passing and special ed students from 17 percent to 31 percent passing. (The good news is somewhat tempered by the fact that the state sets its passing level lower than 70 percent. For both years of eighth grade reading, a student who scored 54 percent or 23-25 questions right out of 44 was considered to have passed.)

In sixth grade reading, overall scores improved from 37 percent passing the year before to 47 percent, with ELL going from 31 percent to 41 percent and special ed from 8 percent to 15 percent. (The state’s passing level: 56 percent.)

And in seventh grade writing, overall passing scores went from 45 percent to 62.5 percent, ELL from 28 percent to 62 percent and special ed from 12.5 percent to 42 percent. (The state’s passing level: 59 percent.)
Perhaps more significant are the results of the Istation (Imagination Station) assessment tests, an individual student tracking program implemented on a pilot basis last year at five HISD schools and expanded district-wide in grades 1-8 this year. According to Rozas, this is the one test other than the STAAR that the district looks at to determine how well students are reading.

Testing is done at the beginning, middle and end of the year, so two tests have been completed so far for 2016-17. Results are divided into three tiers and in that very important first tier, Fondren shows an increase from 29 percent at the beginning of this year to 30 percent at the middle. “That 1 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big deal,” Rozas says, explaining that staying in Tier 1 gets tougher as the year progresses and reading goals are raised.

Another variable in all this is who the school is testing and how anyone knows if he or she is working with the same kids or maybe just got a brighter bunch in one year over the next. Fondren has long been known to have an ever-changing student population. Just Google “Fondren Middle School” and as many ads for apartment deals in the Gulfton area pop up as does anything about the school. Parents seeking cheaper rent will often chase these deals, taking their children in and out of one school zone to another.

Lewis concedes that Fondren’s mobility rate is around 30 percent but points out that this is down from about 38 percent last year, a result of what she says are improving conditions at the school. She says the teachers work hard to develop relationships with students, so chances are better that the school will be able to track them to other schools. But if they move out of state or drop out without notice, Fondren has no way of keeping up with their progress, to see whether what they did worked, Lewis says.

If something like reading is challenging and has been for a long time so that it’s become an undesirable task, then just telling a student to read more doesn’t work, Rozas says. “But if I can connect you with the magazine articles, if I can connect you with an article about football or an article about politics, the things that middle school students are interested in, they’re likely to take that smaller chunk. It’s like fishing. You hook them in and hook them in.”

In the next five to ten years, Rozas expects the literature about and study of middle school literacy is going to explode. “I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve had from other schools. Everybody’s starting to realize it.” As for the right now, she says, teachers like the new approach. “It’s been really well received in middle school because the campuses definitely have felt like they were not hearing anything and elementary and high school get everything.”

Not all the teachers liked what Lewis had to say about all of them being involved in reading to some degree. She was told “I’m not a reading teacher” by more than one. But she’s moved on from that, saying, “You create a community of people who play together, who work together, who collaborate. Let’s grow these kids.”


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