Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District has solidified its plans for a nearly $148,000 Mississippi Department of Education Literacy Support Grant it was awarded earlier this month that was designed to help school districts with a large number of students with low literacy test scores.
Grants and Innovative Strategies Specialist Brandi Burton told The Dispatch the grant — which is disbursed over three years — will fund summer reading programs in 2020 and 2021 that will focus on 100 rising second and third graders who have been identified as struggling with literacy, and rising fourth graders who did not pass the third grade reading exam the state requires to advance to fourth grade.
“Without this grant, we would not be able to pay for the kinds of resources we really need to make this program work to its full potential,” Burton said. “We’re going to spend the (2019-20) school year training teachers for the program and purchasing the resources we need. They’re expensive, so we’re really glad we have the grant and the district doesn’t have to incur any cost.”
The grant will fund salaries for 11 teachers to teach the four-week program both years and will pay for resources specifically designed to advance both reading accuracy — how quickly a student can read words correctly — and comprehension, or how well a student can understand what they’re reading. The grant funds will also be allocated so all students can receive free transportation to and from the program.
“We wanted to make it at no cost to any student or parent,” Burton said. “We’re planning to hold the programs at (Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School) because we also have the free meals program there. So their breakfast and lunch are provided and their transportation is provided. It makes it easier for them to just come in and learn.”
This is the first year MDE has made this specific kind of grant funding available, Burton said. In past years, SOCSD has held a yearly week-long camp for students who failed the third grade reading exam where they can practice accuracy and comprehension and retake the test at the end of the program. However, those camps can only take about 30 to 40 kids, Burton said, which is simply not enough.
“We can’t afford something on this scale without grant funding,” she added. “Because of the price of the resources, there was no way. So we’re really happy we’re able to do this.”
Not just passing a test
SOCSD English Language Arts Specialist Amanda Tullos, who helped Burton write SOCSD’s request for the MDE grant and the plans for the four-week programs, said she wants to focus on more than just equipping students to pass an exam that will determine if they must repeat third grade.
“Some students can read really accurately, but they don’t comprehend or make meaning of what’s in the text,” she said. “A lot of times, students can get up to high school and still struggle with that. So we want to help them learn that as early as we can.”
Because the program will have a student-teacher ratio of 11-1, teachers can have one-on-one time with students so they can address specific issues, which Tullos said should help encourage lasting development.
“We’re really going to be focusing on the students we identify as reading below grade level,” she added. “We’re going to focus on the interaction between student and teacher around the text.”
The “wish list resources” Burton wants to purchase will have electronic components, but the majority of the resources geared toward helping students learn comprehension will be paper books and materials, Tullos said.
“A lot of the research recently shows that students are more engaged when they’re reading a paper book,” she said. “We really want to focus on the process of how to read a book, not just understanding the words, but comprehending the context of a story or a chapter. A lot of times, students don’t know how to find the context of a word or idea in the text, and they’ll get to the end and wonder what they just read. That’s one of our main focuses.”
Burton and Tullos will spend the rest of the school year training teachers, gathering materials and planning the curriculum. By the time next summer rolls around, they’ll be ready, they said.
“We’re planning to do professional development if we need to so the teachers are the best prepared they can be,” Burton added. “We want to make sure students get the most out of these four weeks.”
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