Denise Williams, a 65-year-old Macon grandmother and retiree, is an avid reader. She knows how crucial it is for children to establish solid reading skills early so they can learn for the rest of their lives.
That’s why she volunteers as a reading tutor at Southfield Elementary School on Bloomfield Road.
“It doesn’t take any special skills,” Williams said. “You don’t have to be a teacher. You just have to like kids and be passionate about what you do.”
Williams is one of more than 300 volunteers participating in the United Way of Central Georgia’s Read United, which, along with other literacy programs,has helped Bibb and Houston counties students improve their reading skills in recent years.
Read United launched its fifth year in the schools this past week.
Read United volunteers help students in 12 Bibb County elementary schools and in one Houston County school. The goal is to help them become stronger, proficient readers by the end of the third grade, said Sylvia McGee, project manager for Read United’s AARP Experience Corps.
“You build your fundamental skills for reading in those grades, and if you really don’t get them, then you never become a stronger reader without some kind of intervention and you’re going to be a struggling learner if you don’t have strong reading skills,” McGee said.
In Bibb County schools, the percentages of third-grade students reading at or above grade-level is below the state average, according to the Georgia Department of Education’s 2018-2019 Georgia Milestones report. The percentages are above the state average for the Houston County school system’s third-grade students.
However, Bibb County is gaining ground from five years ago, with Read United and other literacy efforts helping.
In the 2018-2019 school year, 89% of third-grade students who participated in Read United passed the standardized Georgia Milestones learning assessment test on their initial attempt and did not have to receive any remedial help during the summer opportunity school, McGee said.
Improving, but more work to do
“We still have work to do, but I think that we’re moving in the right direction,” said Tanzy Kilcrease, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Bibb County School District.
Bibb has shown marked improvement since the Georgia Milestone test was first given in 2015 when 38.1% of the district’s third-grade students were reading at or above grade level, according to Telegraph archives.
That compares to 59.6% of Bibb County district third-grade students reading at or above grade level in spring 2019, according to Georgia Milestones reports. The percentage was 53.2% in spring 2018.
For comparison, 79.3% of third-grade students in Houston County were reading at or above grade level in spring 2019, compared to 71.1% the same time period the previous year, Georgia Milestone reports show.
The state average of third graders reading on or above grade level was 73% in spring 2019 and 68% the previous spring, according to Georgia Milestone reports.
Kilcrease says children often do better when taking the test the second time because the schools offer remedial help and the students gain confidence once they’ve taken the test the first go-round.
The re-test showed improved scores of 69.3% for 2019 and 68% for 2018, she said.
Third graders who fail the reading portion of the test cannot be promoted to the next grade, and it’s also their first major standardized test, she said.
In 2015, a literacy plan was created to address deficiencies.
Kilcrease said the literacy efforts being used include:
▪ Blocks of reading times in elementary schools with 120 minute blocks for kindergarten through second grade and 90 minutes allotted for third through fifth grade.
▪ A phonics program, MaxScholar, available for all kindergarten through second-grade students.
▪ An additional 45-minute block of “intervention time” available for third-grade students who are struggling with reading and performing below grade level. The program is called System 44.
▪ Read 180 is for third- through 12th-grade students who are significantly behind — possibly as much as one to two grade levels.
▪ ThinkCERCA, a framework to teach sixth- through eighth-grade students how to participate in argumentative writing.
▪ Renaissance Star 360, an assessment that measures students’ achievement and growth pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
▪ Accelerated Reader is available from kindergarten through 12th grade. Students take a reading assessment, then pick a book to read and take a reading test afterward with a goal of scoring 85% or above. Students are awarded incentive points.
“Several schools set these benchmarks and say, if you have this many points by this time, then you get a certain reward,” Kilcrease said of Accelerated Reader. “There’s some schools that principals will be on the roof top, or they’ll kiss a pig ... they’ll do all kinds of things for the schools to reach their goal.”
How to pay for it
Money for the literacy initiatives comes from a variety of sources, including federal, state and local sources, grants or donations from organizations and businesses.
For example, Bibb received a $1.6 million, three-year Literacy for Learning, Living and Leading grant in the 2018-2019 school year that some schools used for their literacy plans, Kilcrease said.
Recently, the Dollar General Literacy Foundation awarded more than $100,000 for youth literacy grants, including $1,500 for the district’s James H. Porter Elementary School, according to a corporate news release.
Calculating Bibb County’s overall cost in the annual budget for literacy efforts is difficult “because we have so many schools with different needs and initiatives,” Stephanie Hartley, the county school spokesperson, said in an email to the The Telegraph.
“Additionally, it’s hard to quantify the time and resources invested in professional learning throughout the year,” she said.
However, Hartley said she could provide the annual costs for some of the major district programs that focus on literacy such as:
▪ MaxScholar: $151,095
▪ System44: $475,627
▪ Renaissance Star 360: about $1 million
▪ ThinkCERCA: $192,533
A District Literacy Leadership Team, which includes community members, monitors the district’s literacy plan. United Way of Central Georgia is on the team, Kilcrease said.
She said their Read United is a “wonderful partnership.”
“Since they’ve been working with us, we’ve seen some of our students really excel and do much better,” Kilcrease said. “And it’s so much more than just about the volunteers coming in for the reading part.
“But they are able to develop those relationships with our students, and our students know that (there are) other people who care about their educational experience — not just the teachers and not just the principals ... people in the community who are rooting for them,” she said.
A parent’s perspective
Burdell-Hunt Magnet School parent Latracia Tolbert-Brite’s youngest daughter, Hannah Brite, always had a passion for reading, but at the start of second grade last year, she was on the cusp of reading at grade-level.
She asked her mom if she could join Read United to improve her reading skills.
“She prepared herself day in and out,” Tolbert-Brite said. “She was basically persistent about it, and now, I can say that she is very confident in reading.”
Today, the 8-year-old third grader is reading above grade level.
Tolbert-Brite said she sometimes catches her daughter with her nose in a book not watching where she’s going.
“I’m like, ‘You need to pay attention,’” Tolbert-Brite said laughing.
On a recent trip home from school, her daughter devoured a 60-page Junie B. Jones book, said Tolbert-Brite, who is a paraprofessional at the school.
“She’s a social butterfly,” Tolbert-Brite said. “She was shy at first, but when she started reading and started doing good on her tests, that built up her confidence.”
As Williams volunteers with Bibb students like Hannah, she said their success is her success.
“The satisfaction that the children have whenever they accomplish something, or they learn new words ... You see the smiles on their faces and they look excited about reading, so all of that makes me feel excited,” Williams said.
“It’s as meaningful to me as it is to the kids,” she said.
Those interested in volunteering can sign up on the United Way of Central Georgia’s website at https://www.unitedwaycg.org/readunited or call 478-745-4732.
Telegraph archives were used in this report.