The pressure is on for schools to improve reading scores in Michigan. Last fall, the state legislature passed the third-grade reading bill. The bill goes into effect in two years and will require schools to hold back third-graders who are not proficient readers, with a few exceptions.
At Blair Elementary School, students have traditionally struggled to become proficient readers. But two years ago, Blair kids improved their reading scores more than any other elementary school in the Traverse City Area Public Schools district.
After such a good year, Blair Principal Kirsten Morgan was euphoric, but hesitant. She hoped they could pull it off again.
How they did last year
This past school year, things weren't looking as good. Students had lost some momentum and roughly half of them were lagging behind, reading below the national average.
Then fast-forward to this spring, and a bunch of those kids weren’t struggling anymore. Twenty-two percent – over one fifth – of the kids who were struggling to read were now reading well for their grade, making their chances of being held back much lower.
Even the kids who didn’t read at grade level improved. Seventy-eight percent of students – nearly eight out of every ten – got better at reading.
With those achievement and growth rates, Blair had the highest growth of any elementary school in TCAPS last year.
"We absolutely feel like we’re onto something when it comes to showing huge growth with kids," says Principal Kirsten Morgan.
TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma says they can see they're making a difference with Blair kids.
"Our challenge moving forward is sustaining that growth and having those kids actually catch up," says Soma.
Still a ways to go
Blair has the highest percentage of kids with special needs in the district and the highest number of English Language Learners. In addition, a lot of the kids have behavioral needs and families that are struggling financially.
Blair students routinely start out below grade level. So even though they improved their reading scores more than other schools in the district, they’re still lagging behind.
"Until we are able to really capitalize and close that actual achievement gap," says Morgan, "I don’t know that we can say that we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to."
The district has already put extra resources into Blair. The school has one more classroom teacher than other schools; they have extra staff to help with reading, special education and student behavior; they implemented a behavioral program that cost extra money; they adjusted the schedule so kids could read for longer blocks during the school day; and they offer a free parent support group.
But Kirsten Morgan says they still need to do more.
"It’s literally trying to squeeze water from a rock," she says. "So my job is to continue to look for ways that we haven’t maxed out."
Going the extra mile
Morgan says that means focusing more on summer learning opportunities in particular. This year they’ve started a summer book club. And she says she’s working to recruit more great teachers and pushing the teachers she already has.
"How do I take the incredibly skilled people I have that are already working really, really hard, and say, ‘OK, now I need you to do this. I need you to do this more?'" asks Morgan. But she says that's what she has to do.
On a very basic level, this need for more from teachers, students, the state and the federal government is about students reading well so they can be successful. But the clock is also ticking on that third-grade reading bill. All struggling elementary schools in Michigan have two years to turn things around.
Blair kids have struggled on the state test – the M-STEP – that will decide which third-graders advance to fourth grade. If they continue to struggle and don’t become better readers in the next two years, potentially more than half of the third-graders could be held back.
It's not just up to schools
Even as Morgan tries to squeeze water from a rock, Superintendent Paul Soma says the school and district can't make most third-graders proficient readers alone.
"If society does not come together around this, and if this is considered only a school problem, then it is impossible," he says. "Our hope rests, however, in people realizing and recognizing that this is not a school problem. This is a society problem."
Soma says schools play a very large role in helping children overcome obstacles and achieve, but they can’t do it alone.