Loving literacy

Two hours of reading club each week is helping students at one school learn to read

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Volunteer Cindy Stechmeyer reads with two second graders during reading club at Lumberg Elementary in Edgewater.

Twice a week after school, about 40 elementary students are spread throughout Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater, in almost every classroom and quiet corner they find.

Volunteers from two local churches pepper the kids with questions and play rhyming games. Among them is Gary Albrecht, in his second year helping out with the after-school reading club.

“I do the characters’ voices and they catch on right away,” Albrecht said. “Then they’re doing the voices too. They just come alive.”

Just the extra two hours of reading per week last year helped kids improve their reading abilities, vocabulary and English fluency, school teachers found. A group of local nonprofits, the Edgewater Collective, highlighted the Lumberg reading club in a report published this week. The group views it as a model that may be replicated at other elementaries in the diverse Jefferson County neighborhoods bordering Denver.

The club includes students of all ages, but focuses on kids in first and second grade with the goal of having more students reading at the appropriate level by third grade.

“Everything flows from that third-grade reading,” said Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective. “These students need extra supports.”

Of the approximately 460 students at the school this year, a little more than 40 percent are learning English as a second language and more than 82 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, a measure of poverty.

According to the numbers in this week’s report, 82 percent of the reading club students, most of whom were encouraged to join because they were falling behind, made at least one year’s growth on reading level ability. Some saw two years’ worth of improvement.

Educators say that the difference is clear when looking at individual students who are in the reading club and those who aren’t.

“It’s a big payoff,” said Rhonda Hatch-Rivera, principal of Lumberg.

Teachers say the two hours a week is enough to make a difference because most of their students don’t regularly read at home.

“We know they don’t because you ask kids, ‘Who reads at home with you?’ They say, ‘Nobody,’” said first-grade teacher Suzie Wawra. “Just that extra time with an adult talking to them and showing them that this is not just important to your teacher or your parents, it’s important for you, is wonderful.”

Teachers say many of the parents are working multiple jobs and may not have time or don’t know how to read English.

More students at the school could benefit from the club, but there’s a waitlist and officials won’t admit more students without more volunteers.

“What we’ve found is it’s best to have one-on-one,” said Laurie Lopez, a teacher who helps coordinate the reading club. “We have six tutors this year who have two kids, but any more than that and it really loses effect.”

The one-to-one pairings also help volunteers develop relationships with the students so they can mentor them around other life skills.

When Albrecht’s fourth-grade reading buddy, Christopher, arrived on Thursday in the room that serves as home base for the reading club, he had his report card in hand.

“We’ll go through this in a little bit, but tell me did you do good?” Albrecht asked.

“I did good,” Christopher responded with a grin.

Lumberg Elementary has a grant this year helping the program by letting staff get paid for some of the extra hours spent on the program, by having an employee organizing all after-school clubs and by paying for snacks to get kids through the extra hour of learning.

Officials said that while money isn’t required to run the program, someone does need to invest time into programming. Volunteers go through background checks and a two-hour orientation at the start of the year. Lopez is also planning another training session in December because volunteers are asking for tips on how to help kids more.

School officials say the volunteers are going above and beyond because they get fulfillment out of the program too.

Volunteer Stephanie Briggs, a retired high school teacher, said she is surprised at how much she enjoys working with the young kids.

“It is so refreshing as a volunteer to come into an elementary school,” Briggs said. “It’s very uplifting. It’s much more fun than I expected.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.