Earnestine Keys
Earnestine Keys, teacher at Jonestown Elementary School, hands out snacks to students during their read and snack time at the beginning of the after-school program on May 16.

CLARKSDALE – For students who struggle to read early in school, data shows that their chances for success later on are bleak.

Students who are not proficient readers by the fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their classmates who finish, according to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The study also found that students who live in poverty are three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time than their peers.

Over the years, Mississippi — a state with high poverty and low education rankings — has been working to combat those statistics and strengthen its literacy efforts.

In 2013, the state passed the Mississippi Literacy-Based Promotion Act, requiring all third-graders to pass the third grade reading test in order to get promoted to the fourth grade.

And now, the Coahoma County School District is reaping the benefits of participating in a pilot program designed to ensure growth in third grade reading proficiency. Four elementary schools in the district saw more than 20 percent increase in literacy after partnering last fall with a Kansas-based after-school program.

The district’s kindergarten through third-grade students participated in the Mississippi Reading Roadmap program, modeled after the Kansas Reading Roadmap program, a data-driven research-based after-school program that provides individualized interventions to target kids who are struggling readers.

The program, which the Walton Family Foundation and Barksdale Reading Institute fund, includes: in-school, after-school, family engagement and summer programming, although the district here did not receive funding for summer programming.

But this after-school program prides itself on being unique, setting itself apart from other after-school programs by placing an emphasis on one-on-one intervention that serves as an extension of in-school tutorials through the Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS), encouraging parents to take part in the reading process at home with their kids, and forcing teachers to use no worksheets — only hands-on activities with the students.

“The students are using skill sets and then the teachers get to create activities for that particular skill. It’s not a worksheet. They’re either cutting, pasting, or gluing and so forth, so its really hands on,” said Nikevia Watson, lead teacher at Jonestown Elementary School.

Teachers can be creative with their lessons, which helps explain the success with the students, said Dr. Kevin Carter, principal of Sherard Elementary School.

Students spell words using shaving cream
Chiquita Philips, teacher at Sherard Elementary School, encourages students as they spell site words using shaving cream during the after-school program.

“So you may walk in and see children with shaving cream on the desk, writing their letters in shaving cream. It’s definitely thinking outside of the box and doing things differently,” Carter said.

During a regular school day, teachers may have a class filled with 25 students, whereas in the after-school program, teachers will have anywhere between six to eight students. This contributes to creating deeper relationships, a laid-back teaching atmosphere, and intense one-on-one sessions, said Anna Watson, lead teacher at Sherard Elementary School.

“They may roll on the floor and count out syllables. How many rolls did you get? We’re learning, but it’s fun and you can’t always do that in the day because you have so many kids,” Watson said. “You can have five kids rolling on the floor, but you can’t have 25.”

So, what readers are targeted and how?

Students take the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, assessment to monitor how fluent each child is in early literacy and early reading skills. Once the program coordinator of Coahoma’s Mississippi Reading Roadmap, Cierra Harris, looks at the scores, she then determines if a student needs a Quick Phonics Assessment (QPS), which identifies what skills the students need to work on.

This places students into the targeted interventions – urgent intervention, intervention, and on watch. The monitoring helps school leaders figure out what support the students need based on the assessments and allows them to continue to check in to see if its working or not.

Coahoma’s schools used their monthly reading and math assessments, STAR, to track their growth with the roadmap program which was something the Kansas-based schools haven’t seen much of before, said Andrew Hysell, executive director of the Kansas Reading Roadmap. The STAR assessment is how teachers and students set goals.

Using the assessments that districts already have in place makes it easier to track the data and implement the program, said Hysell.

“We want to work with them around their system, their assessments, because that’s what’s really important. I think that’s a new way to do after-school,” said Hysell.

“Generally speaking academic school interventions have their own assessments and have their own sort of evaluation measures. … You’ll have different measurements and different strategies whereas with the Mississippi Reading Roadmap work, we use the school’s systems and try to give them extra horsepower.”

The success stories

Students from Sherard, Jonestown, Lyon Elementary School, and Friars Point Elementary School all participated in the program.

Lyon enrolled 64 students in the program; Friars Point enrolled 65 students; Sherard enrolled 47 students; and Jonestown enrolled 51 students.

From August to December 2017, the data showed that all schools saw an increase with students reading at or above the benchmark level. At most schools, their third-graders saw the most increase in scores.

Students at Sherard Elementary School working on fluency skills
Students at Sherard Elementary School participate in Read Naturally during the after-school program.

Sherard Elementary third-graders saw a 22 point increase from 42 to 67 percent. Friars Point third-graders increased from 29 to 32 percent. Jonestown’s students saw a 19 percent gain from 31 to 50 percent; and Lyon saw a small decrease from 48 to 41 percent.

Students from kindergarten, first and second grades also showed growth in literacy scores.

Despite the small to dramatic gains in scores, the individual growth that students show is the highlight for teachers and principals.

Last August, 16 third graders at Jonestown needed intensive interventions in the after-school program, and by the end of the fall, 13 of those students were successful in passing the third-grade reading, said Nikevia Watson.

Nikevia Watson and students from Jonestown Elementary School
Nikevia Watson, lead teacher at Jonestown Elementary School, engages with students during their Book Nook session, an online reading comprehension program.

“We had three students that didn’t make it, but we are soooo excited that these kids were able to use what they’re learning in after-school to help bridge that gap,” she said.

Becky Nider, program manager for Reading Roadmap, noted how the smaller successes are kind of hard to see within the bigger picture.

“We have a little guy from Jonestown. When I came in August, and we started in the program, he started on skill set three which was CVC words and pronouncing, so he was getting the phonemes but not the whole word, and he is now on skill set nine,” said Nider.

“What are they learning in CORE instruction? Is this kid ready to move on to fluency? But to see that is the progress that the kid has made was just amazing and he’s just flying up that phonics continuum.”

Another example she gave was one student started reading 50 words per minute in August and by the end of the program was reading 116 words per minute.

Walking into Wal-Mart and seeing how excited a parent was to see her child reading at a faster rate was a highlight for Valery Harris, lead teacher at Friars Point.

“She was telling me about how much (the third-grade student) had been improving in his reading. At first he would have to read so many words within a minute and it would take him about 40 minutes to finish the paragraph. At the end of the program, it took him about two minutes,” said Harris.

These are the stories that should be captured, said Nider.

“These are the things that we’re seeing on the ground and that’s making a difference for that child, you know, and so those are such awesome success stories right here in Jonestown,” said Nider.

Jonestown principal Charlette Artis-Harris echoed the sentiment by saying the program only works if you have the right people in place who believe in it.

“We want to give them our best because we don’t want them to look back and say I was at Jonestown Elementary and my teacher did not teach me,” said Harris.

“We’re not going to have that here.”

Jonestown Elementary School teacher and students participate in after-school program
Earnestine Keys, teacher at Jonestown Elementary School, watches students as they work through the reading comprehension program, Read Naturally in the library at the after-school program.

Structure of the program 

The Mississippi Reading Roadmap program is structured the same as the other programs in 70 schools across the country.

The after-school program is structured into four, thirty minute rotations: Healthy Kids, Structured Read-Aloud and Vocabulary (SRA-V), Individual Skills Reinforcement (ISR) and Individual Independent Reading.

Read Naturally and Book Nook are the two research-based reading comprehension programs the schools use to help the students with improving their literacy skills.

Anna Watson said teachers incorporate vocabulary games, concentration memory games, and specific skills-based activities for the students to keep them engaged.

Each school has about six teacher volunteers and around eight to ten families to participate in the Literacy Integrated Family Engagement (LIFE) program. The district hires a program coordinator to oversee the programs at the four schools.

LIFE is an eight week, one night a week program that focuses on how parents can reinforce reading at home and finding ways to strengthen the family dynamic, said Hysell.

All school officials agreed that the LIFE program was a fan favorite. It helps parents engage and effectively communicate with their children as well as create a rapport with teachers and other parents.

During LIFE, each session starts with a family meal, then an icebreaker, allowing the families to greet one another and engage in family games.

They wanted to create a family engagement program that uses a lot of the cutting edge research on relationship building, but also bring in the literacy components, said Steve Thorpe, Director of Family Engagement for Kansas Reading Roadmap.

He went on to say that one of the most vital aspects of LIFE is dedicating time to attuned listening — being able to listen and learn to connect with one another.

“I think the biggest thing is we really talk about emotions and emotional intelligence. So one of things we have kids name is primary emotions and sometimes they’ll have like 100 emotions – I’m frustrated, I’m angry, I’m annoyed. And we’re like ‘what’s it feel like in your body?’ Then we’ll have them color here, so they’ll color like, sometimes it’ll be like anger in their neck, or sadness in their eyes, and so we’re getting them to identify what it feels like to be frustrated instead of just acting it out,” said Thorpe.

“To be able to feel it, talk about it, and then share it … that really helps kids instead of acting out their emotions, be able to recognize them and be able to talk about them with their parents. And the parents, the same thing. They don’t always have a chance to talk about what they’re feeling.”

Sherard Elementary School in the Coahoma County School District
Myrtis Leonard, teacher at Sherard Elementary, listens as students read to her during the Book Nook rotation on May 9.

He added that this is a powerful way to identify emotions and work through them.

“I think as parents you get so busy. You’re trying to cook supper and do things and your kids are talking to you, and you’re like ‘Yeah, ok.’ But are you actually listening?” said Nider.

“It’s just the busy schedule of life these days – you just go, go, go, go. You don’t stop to just listen and talk to that child.”

Creating a healthy space for dialogue is important, but conducting family reading time was just as important for the backers of the program.

Hysell noted that research shows if a family reads to their kids or at least prioritizes reading, then it helps with their literacy.

Thorpe added that the number one predictor of a child’s literacy skills is how interested the parents are in reading. Making reading fun for parents is the environment they wanted to create with the LIFE portion of the program.

“We support parents to read to the kids and then the kids see their parents doing it and they’re having fun doing it, then they’ll like reading. So even though reading has a technical part of it, there’s also if you can create a positive association with it and enjoy it, kids will like to do it,” he said.

“In a way, we’re helping parents feel confident in reading to the kids. We train parents how to do it really well because some parents don’t have the confidence. Some parents don’t feel like they’re good readers, so we give them all kinds of skills for them to use so even if they can’t really read, they can go through books and still teach and transmit a love for books through to their kids.”

Keeping the relationships going between the parents after the program is over is one of the goals. During the parent group, parents get a chance to talk through different issues and concerns with other parents and the teachers, which is Anna Watson’s favorite parts of LIFE.

Conversations range from how to have date night with kids, to how can I discipline my child better.

“We sit around and talk about different challenges that they may be facing at home. Some of it is academic, but it may be their child is acting out and we do it in a confidential manner and we discuss strategies we’ve tried that may be beneficial, and then we bring the kids back in and they have a timer set where the kids just talk to the parents about whatever and the parents can’t interrupt,” said Anna Watson.

“Then when the timer goes off the parents will say, ‘This is what I hear you saying’ and then the child may be like, ‘no this is not what I’m saying, or yes it is.”

This portion also gives principals and teachers extra time to break down information to parents.

“During our regular parent-teacher conferences, we just have so many and we explain it to them, but then we might not have the time to sit and have that 20 minute conversation and just get into that plain speech where they understand,” Carter said.

For Jonestown’s principal, it gives them time to show parents how students prepare to take their state tests.

“If it’s close to time to take the test, we guide them so they can actually see how to do this –  how do you help your child do this – from test-taking tips, to cutting off the television, to going to bed, to eating a healthy breakfast,” said Artis-Harris.

“It was very helpful for the parents and for us.”

At the end of the eight weeks, the families graduate from LIFE and enter into an alumni group called Friends for Life, where they continue to meet with parents and continue those relationships.

“In Kansas this has been very successful and it just helps to create more community bond and more connections in the community between similar situated families with young kids,” said Hysell.

“Sometimes it’s hard to make friends when you’re working all day and having to take care of the kids at night. You might not have an opportunity to socialize so this creates community connection.”

Community support

Books for students to read at Jonestown Elementary School
Two books placed on the lunch table for students to read during their homework/snack time at the beginning of the after-school program.

The biggest hurdles for the schools to overcome was parents allowing their kids to stay at school late, school officials say. The students start their school day at 7:15 a.m., finish the afterschool program around 5 p.m., and go straight into the LIFE component of the program which can last until 7:15 p.m.

However, the family support here impressed Kansas-based leaders.

“You would think that a low-income community would potentially be lacking some family support,” said Hysell. “There’s a high level of enthusiasm among the teachers, the tutors, and administrators. There’s like a real sense of like of motivation which is very inspiring, very inspiring.”

Thorpe mentioned how parents graduate from LIFE and “once they’re done with the program, they don’t want to quit.”

Other schools that have used the Kansas roadmap model have seen growth with their students, too.

According to an independent, longitudinal evaluation of 30 sites, children attending Reading Roadmap afterschool programs experienced 57 percent greater growth than their peers — as measured by school assessments,  Hays Post, a Kansas-based digital news source, reported.

Working to bring the program to more districts across the state while creating a partnership with the Mississippi Department of Education and state government officials is something Hysell hopes can happen in the future.

“We feel that Coahoma schools — the four elementary schools are doing a great job and they’re working so hard,” Hysell said. “I’m really impressed with the teachers and administrators.”

Nikevia Watson emphasized how being the pilot school can be an example for other districts to follow.

“I’m really excited that we were chosen as the pilot school for the program and I can see it has really helped to really improve the literacy of the students who are participating … Just being able to be the first to implement the program and we’ve seen such success and just to know, hey, we put Coahoma County on the map with Reading Roadmap,” she said.

This district has secured funding for the upcoming school year to implement the program again.

Editor’s note: The Walton Family Foundation is a funder of Mississippi Today. The Barksdale Reading Institute was founded in 2000 by Sally and Jim Barksdale. Jim Barksdale serves on the board of Mississippi Today.

*The Mississippi Reading Roadmap scores for January 2018 to May 2018 have not been released.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.