Message From NorthBay: All Students Can Learn to Read

Last July, I wrote a blog about a Year 6 (fifth grade) student in England, “Richard,” who just happened to transfer to one of our Success for All schools in spring, 2020. The school staff tested him. He had no reading skills at all. None.

Because they only had a few months to prepare him to go to secondary school, the staff decided to use our Tutoring With the Lightning Squad program with Richard for 90 minutes a day for three weeks (it’s usually used 30 minutes a day for at least 60 days). He gained 2.2 grade levels. To his delight, he could read The Hodgeheg, and was looking forward to reading Harry Potter books!

Photo credit: NorthBay Media Arts

Recently, I discovered that the gains Richard made were not unique to him.

Last summer, we were approached by John Erickson, the founder of NorthBay Education, which had a campus called NorthBay at the top of the Chesapeake. For many years, NorthBay has provided week-long outdoor education and social and emotional learning experiences for sixth graders across Maryland. However, due to Covid, this was impossible, so Erickson and NorthBay Director of Education, Rick Garber, wanted to use their staff and campus to provide an extended educational experience for students who were particularly vulnerable due to their life circumstances. Erickson and Garber wanted us (at Johns Hopkins University and the Success for All Foundation) to provide daily tutoring in reading to these students. We were delighted to agree, so in October, the program got under way. The students had to participate in remote instruction, like other Baltimore students, for six hours a day, and then had a half-hour tutoring session taught by NorthBay staff, trained by SFA coaches. The students stayed all week at the camp, and then went home over each weekend.

I can’t say that all went smoothly, but after a while NorthBay was operating well.

There were two sessions, October to January and February to June. Some students stayed for only the first session and were replaced by others. Others dropped out for a variety of reasons along the way.

I just received the test scores for the 31 students who were pretested in October and posttested on March 2, on the Gray Silent Reading Test (GSRT). Because of all the coming and going, we cannot say anything scientific about the data. We do not know if the gains were representative of all students who attended, and there was no control group. However, something extraordinary happened, and I wanted to share it.

At pretest, eight of the sixth grade students tested at the beginning first grade level (1.0), and one at 1.2. The average for these nine former non-readers at posttest was 4.1. That’s a gain of 3 grade levels in four months. Every non-reader but one reached a grade equivalent of at least 3.0. The exception got to 2.8. One got to 5.8, and one to 9.2!

I had been impressed that Richard, in England, went from zero to Hodgeheg in three weeks, but he was getting the equivalent of three tutoring sessions a day. In four months, with one session a day, every one of the nine non-reading NorthBay students went from zero to Hodgeheg, and some from zero to Harry Potter.

Other students also made astonishing gains. One went from 1.8 to 5.8. One, from 2.0 to 5.0. One from 3.0 to 7.5. One from 3.5 to 9.8.

There were many things going on in this experience, of course. The students were living at a beautiful, peaceful place for four months, with caring staff, good food, and great outdoor activities. They were experiencing the Baltimore City online curriculum, with good computer linkages and plenty of on-site assistance. Tutoring is not all they were getting.

The most important conclusion from the NorthBay experience is that these kids, mostly from very difficult backgrounds, could learn to read. The NorthBay experience suggests that they always could have learned to read under the right circumstances. Had they had the opportunity to make these gains earlier in elementary school, and reached the third grade level or better by, say, third grade, perhaps they would now be at grade level in sixth grade.

The message of NorthBay is that the problems kids face in learning to read are not usually due to anything wrong with the kids. It is not due to anything wrong with the capable and heroic teachers who have done their very best. It is the system, far beyond Baltimore, that does not allocate the funding needed to provide every struggling reader whatever is necessary to learn to read.

Today, Baltimore City Public Schools is about to receive significant funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other sources. They cannot send everyone to NorthBay, though that would be wonderful. But they can use the new funds to create the teaching and tutoring resources that made such a difference. And so can any school or district in America.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

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