New Tactics on Reading at Middle Schools

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Reviving an effort begun years ago to improve low-performing middle schools, New York City is changing tactics and concentrating on improving reading and writing skills.

The new plan is the second phase of a campaign started in 2008 by the City Council and the city’s Education Department to bolster student performance at 51 of the lowest-performing middle schools. Three years later, the department and Council have rethought their approach and moved on — to an almost entirely different batch of 18 schools, where they plan to train teachers in literacy instruction for students who read at a third- or fourth-grade level.

“The core problem of literacy in middle school is you’re transitioning from learning to read, to reading to learn,” said Josh Thomases, deputy chief academic officer for the Education Department.

But middle school teachers are often not trained to guide that evolution. Instead, most teachers are taught to work in elementary or high schools, and only a fraction of them have a specific middle-school certification.

“Because of the way we license middle-school teachers,” he said, “none of the teachers colleges actually train secondary teachers in how to teach kids how to read.”

Over the remaining two years of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s term, the 18 schools will receive from $157,000 to $219,000 annually based on their size; the money is to be spent on retraining their teachers, hiring reading specialists and buying software and books. Since 2008, when the Council released a report on problems in public middle schools, the Education Department has directed an additional $5 million per year to 51 schools, money that will now go to the new group of schools.

At Emolior Academy, a middle school in the South Bronx that opened in 2008, this problem was on display everywhere. After learning that only 13 percent of his students met the proficiency bar by scoring a 3 or a 4 on the state English exam last spring, the principal, Derick T. Spaulding, papered the hallways with fliers that bellow: “2 Is Not Enough!!!”

Last week, sitting in his office with his long dreadlocks spilling over a tan suit, he looked the picture of calm, but frustration with his students’ performance crept into his voice. “Our kids are able to read fluently; they just are not able to comprehend what they’re reading,” he said.

Many students arrive several grade levels behind, and their literacy gaps have spilled out of English classes into other content areas, he said. A science teacher recently discovered that students who had passed her class were unable to go back and understand passages of the textbook unassisted, he said.

With roughly $157,000 from the city, Mr. Spaulding is working with Australian literacy consultants and is training one of his teachers to become a reading coach. Come March, his school will open a second Saturday tutoring program and, for the first time, Emolior Academy will have sets of books in classrooms, instead of photocopies.

The Education Department chose different schools for the campaign’s second phase because officials believed they would have more success with schools whose principals were already in the same support networks and regularly talked to one another, Mr. Thomases said. They were also looking for schools that enrolled many low-income, minority students, but were stable and showing signs of progress.

Of the original 51 schools, only 4 remain in the initiative, and 8 of them have been closed or are being phased out because of poor performance. Although a few appear to be improving, many of the middle schools that participated are still foundering. As a group, they posted higher test scores in the first two years that they received additional money, but budget cuts and changes to the state exams overtook much of that progress.

Of those that remain open, only one, a school on Staten Island, had more than a third of its students meet the state’s proficiency standard in English last spring.

According to Mr. Thomases, all of the original schools that are no longer part of the campaign are either receiving additional money through other initiatives, or an annual stipend of $10,000.

The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who is most likely to run for mayor in 2013, said she was hopeful the second phase would offer lessons that could be applied to all middle schools.

“Notwithstanding progress we’re making in our schools, they are the part of our system that’s still the weakest,” Ms. Quinn said. “It’s the part of the system where parents say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’m thinking of moving, I’m thinking of going to parochial school.’ ”