Tonya Campbell chatted for 30 seconds with her third-graders about how they know a book they selected is just right for them.
Those little talks help her know where students might need help and what they understand and don’t understand.
And many of them need help.
At Oakwood Elementary where she teaches, 65 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level, according to 2016 Georgia Milestones test results. Scores vary widely at local schools, with Chicopee Woods, Fair Street and Lyman Hall testing at the low end, with just 40 percent or so reading at grade level. Friendship Elementary third-graders meanwhile perform on the top end of the results, with 88 percent reading at grade level.
Local test results often correlate strongly with the percentage of students in poverty and still learning English.
In Gainesville schools in particular, 76 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a common measure of poverty in education.
In addition, more than half of Gainesville’s students are Hispanic.
Demographics in Hall schools vary, but some like Lyman Hall and Chicopee Woods more closely mirror that of the city schools.
“Those who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers,” according to the overview of Double Jeopardy, a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation on how third-grade reading skills and poverty affect graduation rates. “For the worst readers, those who could not master even the basic skills by third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater.”
Supervisors in both Hall and Gainesville school districts recognize the hurdles.
Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville, pointed to recent gains as evidence the district has found an effective reading program.
She said in 2015, 51 percent of third-grade students were reading below grade level. In 2016, that percentage dropped to 41 percent — a gain of 10 percentage points. For the same two years, the state gained 3 percentage points, she noted.
Gainesville has started a new literacy framework that is being used in all its schools. It was used at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy during the 2015-16 year.
“We saw great success from both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective and came together as a district to determine that we wanted to implement in each school,” Bell said.
“We believe that this is strong evidence that the literacy framework that we piloted last year is having a positive impact.” A key component of the framework is including a variety of texts above grade level, she said.
Each student progresses at his or her pace, Jo Dinnan, elementary education director for the county, said.
Hall uses a program it developed called balanced literacy. Its balanced scorecard, which includes character, competency and difficulty goals, includes a goal for 90 percent of students to read at or above grade level by the end of the third grade.
Dinnan said that has been a goal for several years. None of the schools meet it.
But Hall County’s early literacy coordinator Patty Robinson said “we don’t ever stop trying to teach them to read.” The district has specific programs to assist readers through high school.
Educators generally agree that reading skills gained in the first years of school are most critical.
One cliche in education is that students “learn to read” from kindergarten through third grade. “Reading to learn” starts in fourth grade.
Hall County has been working on its “balanced literacy” plan about five years, Robinson said. Teachers have worked on it each summer, she said.
“Feedback from classroom teachers is huge,” she explained. “They help us know what holes need to be plugged.”
One of the steps in the county plan calls for teachers to read aloud to the class at least twice a week.
Campbell said she is reading “Because of Winn Dixie” by Kate Dicamillo to her class every day. She said, “It’s funny and fun, and the kids love to listen to it.”
Olivia Swafford, a third-grader in the class, said she is reading “Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” by the same author.
She’s not a very fast reader, Olivia said, but she likes reading because “sometimes you can forget where you are and go to another world.”
To improve students’ reading, the Oakwood teacher uses lots of reading exercises and moves the students around so “they don’t get bored.”
“You have to continuously keep them on the go,” Campbell said. “You have to keep their hands and minds and bodies continuously busy.”
Robinson pointed out that some reading lessons last seven to eight minutes.
Campbell does not focus on getting students “on grade level” in reading per se but works to have students understand sentences and concepts — and be able to explain them to her.