When Tiy Goodwin’s son was being treated for a speech disorder in kindergarten, he started to fall behind his classmates in reading. “He didn’t know how to communicate, and that affected his reading,” Goodwin said. Her son’s teacher at Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville recommended him for a new after-school reading intervention program called Extending the Bridges of Literacy. In EBL, her son received three hour-long reading lessons each week in groups of six children or fewer. Goodwin said EBL gave her son opportunities to learn and bond with his teachers that he wouldn’t have had in a typical classroom setting. “My son is quiet; he doesn’t like to ask questions if there are a lot of people around,” she said. Goodwin said her son, now in fourth grade, easily passed his first Standards of Learning test for reading last spring. Along with reading, he also enjoys writing and illustrating his own comic books. “He talks up a storm, and all he wants to do is read,” Goodwin said.

Literacy gaps

EBL is one of Charlottesville City Schools’ newest programs aimed at bringing more students up to grade level in reading and closing the division’s persistent achievement gaps. Fifty-four percent of Charlottesville’s economically disadvantaged students passed SOL tests for reading in the 2017-18 school year, while 92 percent of students from wealthier households passed. Fifty percent of black students and 70 percent of Hispanic students passed the tests, compared with 89 percent of white students. Kendra King, Charlottesville’s director of student services and achievement, said at a city School Board meeting in October that disparate opportunities in early childhood influence students’ reading abilities well before kindergarten. “If you do not have the exposure to vocabulary, exposure to experiences — museums, conversations, cultural events, classic books — your [mental] imagery may not be as vivid as another student who has had those opportunities,” King said. “Our teachers are working so hard, not just at teaching reading skills, but also building that background information.” Charlottesville’s literacy specialists provide targeted intervention services for small groups of students during the school day. The EBL afterschool program, including its 30-minute recess and snack period, adds the equivalent of 27 days to the school year for some of these students. “The school day is filled with state requirements that we have to meet,” said Juandiego Wade, School Board chairman. “Teachers felt that if we had more time, that would help to move the needle.”  

Antwan Tinsley, a first-grader at Venable Elementary School, listens as Leslie Hunter reads a picture book during the Extending the Bridges of Literacy after-school program. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

More time to learn

EBL was launched in 2015 with funding from the Virginia Department of Education’s Extended School Year Grant program. The VDOE grant covered 80 percent of the program’s $300,000 annual budget for its first three years. The state contribution was reduced to 20 percent for 2018-19. Invitations to EBL are based on end-of-year results in literacy assessments and recommendations from teachers. Last year, 141 of 195 students in EBL were economically disadvantaged and 107 were African-American. The school division offers bus rides home from EBL for students who are not picked up by their parents. When possible, EBL students are matched with their current classroom teachers. Their books and units of study often align with what they are learning during the school day. “I have my own students for EBL this year, and the continuity has been wonderful,” said Karen Minor, a first-grade teacher at Venable. Minor said some of her EBL students have mastered words that most of their classmates have yet to learn. “These students are showing off their new vocabulary and teaching others [in their class] — that is huge,” Minor said. Leslie Hunter, another first-grade teacher a Venable, started a recent EBL lesson by reading aloud “Matthew and Tilly,” a picture book about two children who learn how to repair their friendship after an argument. “Matthew and Tilly had a quarrel. What is a quarrel?” Hunter asked the students. One boy offered a definition: “A quarrel is talking and fighting. … a ‘talk-fight.’” “That’s right!” Hunter said. In a fourth-grade classroom upstairs, students read books of their choice while curled up beneath tables or stretched out over pillows on the floor. “We’re trying to let students re-create their living room in the classroom,” said Erin Kershner, Venable’s principal. Kershner said parents of students in EBL also notice its effect on their child’s vocabulary. “But the biggest impact is on their self-confidence in their reading,” she said.

Fourth-graders in the Extending the Bridges of Literacy program averaged a year-to-year increase of 30.5 points on their SOL reading tests in 2018.

Getting results

The school division has not conducted a controlled study to measure EBL’s effect on students’ reading ability. But Jenifer Davis, coordinator of English for the division, said there are many indicators of the program’s effectiveness. According to a report that Davis shared with the School Board, fourth-grade students in EBL averaged a year-to-year increase of more than 30 points on the reading SOL test in 2018. Fourteen of the fourth-grade students who passed had failed the test in third grade. EBL students also demonstrated significant growth on the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test, which measures word recognition and spelling knowledge. Davis said she was especially proud of the many individual scores that showed over a year’s worth of growth, even if they fell slightly short of end-of-year benchmarks for the test. On the AIMS fluency assessment, which measures how many words a student can read correctly per minute, multiple grade levels saw an average increase of more than 30 words per minute during the 2016-17 school year, according to a VDOE report on the Extended School Year Grant Program.

“Laser-focused” on growth

While EBL has consistently fostered growth and supported many individual success stories, it’s not an immediate solution for Charlottesville’s achievement gaps. Davis’ report to the School Board showed that 78 percent of students in the program still were reading below their grade level at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Davis said finding teachers for EBL also has been difficult. Because teachers are hired for EBL on a voluntary basis, staffing and enrollment at each school can vary. For example, Burnley-Moran Elementary currently only offers the program to three grade levels, while other schools offer it to four. EBL also is offered to fifth-graders at Walker Upper Elementary School, but its enrollment and attendance always has been lower than seen at the K-4 schools. Davis attributed this to more competition from other afterschool activities for older children. Despite its challenges, Davis said that EBL has made many children more confident readers and curious learners — a potentially life-changing result that no assessment can fully measure. “I think we will see greater gains,” Davis said. “Building confidence and relationships can move mountains in terms of growth. We are even more laser-focused on that now.”

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.