District jumps ahead of reading retention law

Law goes into effect summer 2017 in Iowa
Posted at 7:12 AM, Aug 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-02 08:12:04-04

Summer 2017 is a year away, but educators in Iowa are preparing young students to avoid the "controversial" third-grade retention law when it goes into effect.

Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade may be held back, a stipulation many educators do not agree with.

However, struggling readers may enroll in an intensive summer reading program to avoid repeating the grade again.

Over the summer, schools across the Hawkeye state participated in a pilot study program to assess the best method for struggling readers.

We have to make sure we're meeting kids where they are, says third grade teacher Chase Piper at Franklin Elementary in Council Bluffs.

“We can't just have this one idea that what I’m teaching is going to reach every kid,” he says.

That is why Iowa Reading Research Center is studying three reading methods for its pilot summer course which features textbooks, computer learning through the software program “Lexia” and “business as usual” – the normal summer curriculum created by districts.

Nearly 100 additional students with Council Bluffs district signed up for classes held at Franklin and Longfellow elementary over summer vacation through the already-established Summer Exploration Program, a program the district has held for several years. The pilot program selected the district to participate in the study.

 “There's a lot of research that says children who can't read by third grade, they're going to behind from that point on,” says Martha Bruckner, superintendent of the Council Bluffs Community Schools. “We think that we help children to read up until after third grade and then after third grade they read to learn.”

Carter, 9, spent his break reading at Franklin with help from Lexia, a computer-based program, which is tailored for students based on their level and the curriculum progresses as children successfully master the fundamentals.

Approximately, 15 kids are in Piper’s class, some seating on bean chairs or at desks reading hard books or using the software program on their assigned computers.                                                                                

While most teachers and administrators agree with the law on helping poor readers, many struggle with the concept of retaining children in the same grade.

“There has been backlash to the theory that you should retain kids that can't read because there's no research that says that's a good idea. There's none,” Bruckner says.

But to avoid being held back, there is a caveat in the law that allows third grade students to enroll in an accelerated program the summer before fourth grade.

Still, school officials are not thrilled with the timeline.

The summer intensive program should not be given at the end of third grade, when a child is failing already, Bruckner says.

“I know our district is focusing on early intervention in the early grades. I mean, we're not waiting until third grade,” says Piper. “I know that third grade seems to be the year that everyone is looking at, but really the work starts at [pre-kindergarten] for our district.”

Currently, the school is waiting for data from the reading research center to see which model is best for struggling readers.

In addition to finding the perfect rollout, what remains in the air is cost, Bruckner says.

 In the meantime, Council Bluffs plans to jumpstart a reading campaign for the new school year in September.