The Wichita school district plans to launch a new reading program for its youngest students, hoping to reduce the number of children who advance to upper grades without basic reading skills.
It's not clear how much the district plans to spend for the new curriculum, called Read Well, which is being used in Tacoma, Wash., and a number of Florida schools.
Kindergarten and first-grade teachers got their first look at the program last month, but it is still awaiting school board approval.
"There's no magic bullet, but I think it can move us forward," said superintendent John Allison.
"Literacy is our No. 1 job, and it all starts in those early primary grades.... This is one of those investments we can't afford not to make."
In 2010, about 71 percent of Wichita third-graders met the state standard in reading, well below the Kansas average of nearly 84 percent. In eighth grade, only 68 percent of Wichita students met the state standard, compared with 86 percent statewide.
Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60 percent of children are reading below grade level.
Neither Allison nor Denise Seguine, Wichita's chief academic officer, would discuss details of the Read Well curriculum or explain why it was chosen from a myriad of programs aimed at struggling readers. A spokeswoman said they would talk more after a school board presentation later this month. .
A new approach
Read Well is distributed by Cambium Learning Group Inc. and was authored by Oregon educator and consultant Marilyn Sprick. Sprick's husband, Randy, created Safe & Civil Schools, a classroom management program. The Wichita school board voted to spend up to $480,000 on that program last fall; so far the district has spent $468,500 for materials and training.
Allison said the new reading program incorporates recent research on early literacy and how children learn.
"There's a saying now that teaching reading is rocket science," he said. "With all that money being invested in reading research, we have to lift the knowledge base for our teachers and put... the right materials in their hands."
Over the past two years, a project funded by Wichita businessman Barry Downing showed significant gains among youngsters who scored in the bottom fifth on early-reading tests.
The project, coordinated by the Fundamental Learning Center and financed with a grant from the Barry and Paula Downing Foundation, will end this year after serving more than 300 students. As part of the program, 80 teachers received four weeks of training in Alphabetic Phonics, an approach that makes letters and letter sounds tangible. They worked with students in small groups for at least an hour a day.
Allison said the district "gleaned valuable information" from the project but determined that it could not be replicated districtwide.
"It was effective. We saw significant growth," he said. "But from a manpower standpoint and given our schedules and our current financial situation, it's just not attainable on a large scale."
Allison said Read Well, if approved, would replace the current Treasures curriculum in kindergarten classes. First-grade teachers would use it as an intervention tool, for students struggling to sound out letters and words.
"As kids progress (through school) with gaps, the ability to close those gaps gets more difficult," Allison said. "It's clear we need to change our approach" in early grades.
Downing, the force behind the Opportunity Project preschools in Wichita and an advocate for early-childhood education, said his project met its primary goal.
"We showed that this way of remediating children does work, and it works great with kids that are 4 or 5 or 6," he said. "By the time a child is 7 and in second grade, it gets more difficult."
The Downing project includes "literacy labs" at two Wichita schools — Gordon Parks Academy and Mueller Elementary — where reading specialists work with kindergartners and first-graders in one-hour blocks.
Children who could not identify letters, recognize letter sounds or even identify the cover of a book last fall were, by Christmas, scoring close to the national average on reading assessments.
On a recent afternoon in the Mueller literacy lab, reading specialist Billie Vliet helped Sir Nickoles Jackson read the word "liked."
"Llll ... ick," the boy started.
"Look at the suffix," Vliet said, pointing. "Remember suffix 'ed'? What did we make for suffix 'ed'?"
"Airplanes," he said.
"That's right," she said. "Remember we folded? And jumped? And sailed?... Suffix 'ed' means it happened when?"
"In the past," Sir Nickoles answered.
It took him more than a minute to sound out "Bill, Pete and Joe liked to go to the playground." But carefully decoding each sound and syllable, he did it.
"If you teach a kid the rules of the game, they can play," Vliet said.
Jeanine Phillips, director of the Fundamental Learning Center, said she was disappointed that the Downing-funded project will not continue. Plans called for 120 more teachers to complete the training and use Alphabetic Phonics techniques in their classrooms.
"This (project) shows that training teachers the right way, intensively, giving them the right tools for teaching reading can have an amazing outcome," she said.
Allison said teachers who participated in the project will continue to use their training, regardless of which new curriculum the district adopts.
"My ultimate goal five years from now is that every one of our teachers is a literacy expert," he said. "We have to commit... to provide the materials and the support to make sure that happens."