Extra Help for Middle Schools Gains Traction

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Despite 12 years of mayoral control of the schools, many of New York City’s 12-year-olds are still struggling to read. Improving middle school performance was a key piece of Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott's agenda when he took office in 2011 but critics say his efforts have not amounted to much.

What is not in dispute is the problem. New York City’s eighth graders haven’t made significant reading progress since 2002, according to state and national exams, and about three-fourths of 7th and 8th graders don’t read at a proficient level.

In a recent effort to improve skills, the Department of Education selected 49 under-performing middle schools to receive both literacy training and thousands of dollars in program materials.

One of the schools was the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx, where teachers have reshuffled the way they teach English as part of the city initiative. Sixth and seventh-grade students are required to take an extra English class tailored to their needs. All teachers – regardless of expertise – are expected to tackle literacy in the classroom.

“We’re now working to move kids that are reading at a second grade level up to an eighth grade level in three years, in what they couldn’t do in five or six years,” said Principal Jennifer Joynt.

While many have applauded the city’s efforts, some parent leaders said they're too little too late. Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, said that she and a group of parent leaders lobbied the city to fix its middle schools in 2007, and eventually partnered with the City Council to create a middle school task force.

“You’re happy that there are schools reaping the benefits of what should’ve been happening, but at the same time, you say ‘how many kids did we lose?” she said.

After six years of pushing literacy on the table, she said the current initiatives, which only focus on 49 of the hundreds of middle schools, seem limited.

“How do we scale this up?” she said. “That’s what I want to see.”

Nancy Gannon, an education official overseeing the initiative, said expansion is part of the plan, once it gauges the most effective strategies.

“There are no answers out there of what works,” Gannon said. “It’s not like we’re implementing a set of things that other people have implemented and hit gold on.”

For initiatives like the city’s 49-school pilot program to work, literacy expert Michael Kieffer said it’ll require not only improving instruction but providing strong professional development to teachers.

“Middle schools haven’t traditionally taught reading. It’s just assumed that by sixth grade you should be able to read,” said Kieffer, who’s an associate professor at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Teaching and Learning.

The reality that kids are entering middle schools years below reading grade level, he said, should push all teachers to broaden their expertise.

Click on play to hear more about the issue, and hear how teachers and students at the Urban Institute of Mathematics are working to jump several grade levels in reading skill in a short time.