Editor’s note: This article is the fourth of a multi-part series on Stewart Elementary school, a case study for change in the San Antonio Independent School District. The students and families in this series have been assigned aliases to protect their privacy. We thank the families for allowing us to spend time in their homes and lives.
Stewart Elementary School second-grader Elizabeth is learning to read. She’s behind her classmates, but her aunt Romona is committed to seeing her catch up.
“I wanted her to get to that level where she could pass to third grade,” said Romona.
They read together every day. Romona has asked the school for a summer reading list to keep Elizabeth moving forward. In her Easter basket, Elizabeth received phonics flash cards.
Even though Romona has three other children to care for, two of her own and Elizabeth’s brother, she has devoted significant energy to Elizabeth’s reading. It takes effort and commitment to sit down with one child while the other children are left to their own, but the progress shows her that it is worth it.
Because of the money she receives from the state for adopting Elizabeth and her brother Abel, Romona is able to be a full-time mother to the four children. They live with Romona’s parents and their two children, who are in kindergarten and first grade. All the kids attend Stewart, where Romona is a parent volunteer.
She’s at the school constantly, and expresses confidence in principal Traci Smith, and the changes she has made in her first year on campus. The school, she said, is a happier place with Smith’s energy and optimism.
“I just love my P.F. Stewart,” Romona said. “(Dr. Smith) has done a lot of good things.”
Currently, Smith and Elizabeth’s teacher, Alejandra Lopez, are pulling out all the stops to get Elizabeth to a reading level that will allow her to pass to third-grade.
“The more she achieves, the more she wants to achieve,” Lopez said.
Elizabeth told this reporter that reading is now one of her favorite subjects. Lopez and Smith are doing their best to fan those flames and give her plenty of opportunities to succeed.
However, they wonder if putting her into a third grade classroom where she would only be further behind is best for her. She has made great strides in maturity and focus this year, but she’s still making up ground lost to years of family instability and untreated ADHD.
In our interviews, Elizabeth rarely said more than a few words at a time. Her teachers said that she would "shut down" if pushed too far. She seemed to prefer to be by herself than with other children, at least while she was being observed. At home, while the other children played wild games in the yard, Elizabeth retreated to her room and watched YouTube videos on her small handheld screen device, shutting out the world.
Romona confirmed that this was pretty normal.
Some can be attributed to the adjusting of medications and extra energy exerted trying to catch up at school. However, many of Elizabeth's struggles are linked to years of instability.
It would be difficult enough if Elizabeth was the only student in her classroom overcoming such struggles. Since the adoption, she actually has a lot more going for her. Other children are still part of the highly mobile population seen in most SAISD schools, where hunger, illness, and parents’ job insecurity all compromise the students' ability to learn.
“In the primary grades especially, you’re going to see the effects of a lack of structure at home,” Lopez said.
For some students, school is the first intentional learning environment they will know, and the earlier they get to it, the better. Structure has a profound effect, but it can only work so fast.
More than once this year, Smith enrolled a student mid-year who had never been in a school setting. One of these students was eight years old. While their age indicates that they should be moving on to second, third, or even fourth grade, the expectation that they will be on grade level by the end of the year is ambitious, if not unrealistic. Nonetheless, come testing time, the school will still be accountable for them, adding to the pressure.
The district’s plans for improving literacy include substantial parent resources, so that home can become a learning environment. They have planned at-home guides with games and activities that parents can use to help their child recognize letters and sounds.
In some households, reading is a challenge for the parents as well. Sitting down to read a book may be defeating for both students and parents. Smith and Riggs both emphasized the importance of parents who encourage literacy in the home, in a variety of ways, in addition to providing books that kids can keep.
Smith also pointed out the unique struggle of English language learners, or ELL students. These are called bilingual students from pre-K onward, but they won’t actually be bilingual until much later. For now, they are taught entirely in Spanish until the fourth grade. They learn English as a second language, the way the English speakers might learn Spanish in a traditional classroom.
Then, in fourth grade, they mainstream into an English-speaking setting where they will be expected to read in English to gain content knowledge.
The problems with this approach are obvious, even before you look at test scores, which show ELL students performing far behind their peers throughout their education. According to district data, only 48% of ELL students in the class of 2014 were testing at proficient levels as opposed to 63% of the general student population.
The district plans a more integrated approach for ELL students, with more intensive English acquisition efforts beginning in second grade. Like all students learning to read, they will be in environments of constant exposure, so that fourth grade is not so jarring.
The district has a lot at stake in those fourth and fifth grade years. When parents see their child falling further and further behind with middle school on the horizon, it can influence their decision to enroll in charter schools or private schools. Parents know that if their child can’t experience some success in middle school, the forces at work against making it to graduation — peer pressure, discipline problems, competing concerns — are more likely to win out.
Reporting on Stewart, I witnessed this attrition firsthand. Steven was one of the first students we met. He was in fourth grade and struggling with reading.
His aunt, Portia, also volunteered at Stewart. She wanted to give the school a chance with Smith at the helm, but was anxious about the likelihood that Steven would catch up in time. She was even more doubtful of his middle school options. She and her husband were doing what they could at home, but they felt that Steven might be better served at Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, a local charter school.
“I can (name) you 10 parents who want to move their kids,” Portia said.
Between our first meeting at school and the time we had prepared to make a home visit, Portia and her husband decided that their nephew couldn’t wait any longer. He had been accepted to Brooks, and they made the switch. Even though they have high hopes for changes coming in SAISD, they felt like it was too risky to wait.
SAISD estimates that approximately 600 students per year leave the district between fifth grade and sixth grade. Those numbers are likely go up if you include fourth and fifth graders who are leaving for the same reasons. Even if middle school is their main concern, they don't want to risk losing a charter school seat if it becomes available. Portia heard stories of other children's success at the Brooks, and decided that Steven could be making up more ground if he went to the charter school earlier.
Ultimately, parents feel like they are racing a clock that started ticking when their student began to struggle with reading.
More than anything else, learning to read takes time. Not just on the part of the learner, for the adults guiding him or her along the journey. Parents and teachers sign on for what can be an excruciating process when a student is struggling to make sense of phonics and remember sight words.
SAISD is moving toward a new literacy program for pre-K through third grade. The next article in this series will explore those changes. This new program will focus on giving teachers and parents the support and resources they need to get through the grunt work to that magical moment when a child reads something that truly interests him or her and declares, “I like to read.”
In Lopez’s second grade classroom at Stewart, she’s witnessed that moment with her own eyes. It's the moment enjoyment enters the equation.
“It’s really emotional for a lot of them,” Lopez said.
As many parents will attest, when the learning-to-read struggle finally pays off, it pays off big-time.
Top Image: Elizabeth looks through YouTube videos on her portable device, this is a normal after school activity said her Aunt Ramona. Photo by Scott Ball.