Charlottesville City Schools is considering increasing the amount of reading instruction some students receive. Credit: Credit: United States Department of Education

About 30 percent of students in Charlottesville City Schools are reading below grade level.

School officials want to improve the instruction that struggling readers receive — perhaps by launching a new program and a longer school day for selected students.

“We have a number of students who aren’t performing up to standards in reading,” Gertrude Ivory, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told School Board members recently. “We have a number of interventions, but no real comprehensive programs, so we’re trying to get a comprehensive program started across grade levels. …”

Staff recently floated the idea for the RISE Academy (Reading Initiative for Students to Excel), which would add time to the school day for qualifying students. Staff recently sought direction from the board about either developing or tabling the concept.

School Board member Ned Michie praised the idea and called the reading issue a “fundamental problem.”

“Thinking outside the box on expanding time seems to make sense,” Michie said. “The idea of more formally adding time to the day for students who are struggling is an interesting idea.”

While program details — such as curriculum and teacher training — would need be to be ironed out, Ivory said the initiative likely would serve elementary- and middle-school students in their home schools.

“We’re continuing to explore our options for
extending reading instruction for elementary
through middle school,” Henderson said, noting
noting that no timelines have been established.

Any additional instruction time, schools officials said, would be targeted in reading and would be in addition to the instruction students receive in their grade-level courses.

“We know what good reading instruction looks like,” Ivory said, “so the program would provide additional time to be in the text and practice those reading skills.”

“We want to explore what [the program] would look like,” said Superintendent Rosa Atkins.

The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education has agreed to assist in developing the model, Atkins said.

Charlottesville City Schools already has more than 10 reading intervention programs, costing in total $500,000 to $600,000.

Ed Gillaspie, director of finance for Charlottesville’s schools, said that if a model were to be developed and approved, staff likely would repurpose a portion of those funds for the RISE Academy. However, Gillaspie said, it is too early in the planning process to know an exact figure.

Assistant Superintendent Jim Henderson said the idea is still in its infancy.

“We’re continuing to explore our options for extending reading instruction for elementary through middle school,” Henderson said, noting that no timelines have been established.

School officials said the benefits of increased learning time include improving literacy skills for students at risk of academic failure and bolstering social and emotional skills.

Despite the goal to increase student reading achievement, Ivory said, many questions still remain. For example, staff and the board would need to decide on a benchmark that determines success; whether students can enter and leave the program during the year; and whether qualifying students can opt out, among other issues.

“Right now different schools have different offerings for students who are struggling,” Michie said. “Thinking more formally about reaching the kids that we need to reach … it seems to have a lot of logic behind it, even though there are a lot of details to be worked out.”

Board member Willa Neale agreed, calling the move “smart.”

Board member Jennifer McKeever wanted to know more.

“I look forward to the details,” McKeever said, “but I don’t want to be the parent who has to tell the child that they have to be in school for more hours.

“The last thing I want is a student to go to another afterschool program and be miserable,” she said.

Ivory said the division would not want that, either, and that the program wouldn’t be punitive.

Board member Juandiego Wade said he doesn’t think that would be a problem, however.

“A lot of the students we’d be working with are already part of an afterschool program,” Wade said. “But after a year or two or three, I want to see what the impact [is].”

Board member Colette Blount said creating a program would allow the division to develop a cohort of students whose academic progress could be closely monitored.

School Board Chairwoman Amy Laufer underscored the importance of buy-in from parents and teachers.

“I think it is a way to help students,” Laufer said.

In addition to the increased commitment the initiative would require of students, Atkins said, a greater commitment would be needed from teachers. Those who would be selected for the program would be offered different contracts because their hours would differ from those in a traditional teaching contract.

The School Board expects to discuss the matter again when more details are available.