Seven out of 10 young children in New York City public schools lack basic reading skills, according to the Department of Education’s figures – a problem that the city hopes to fix through a coaching program scheduled to begin this fall.
The project, officially dubbed the Universal Literacy Initiative, is expected to cost $75 million annually after it has been fully phased in by 2019. The goal is to achieve “100 percent literacy” among third graders by 2026, according to a statement by Mayor de Blasio’s office.
New York’s geographic District 10 – the northwest section of the Bronx – is among a handful of the city’s areas that will receive the first cohort of coaches this fall. The others are districts 9 in the Bronx and 17 and 32 in Brooklyn. The districts have been selected for having a high number of young students and a large share of third-grade students with low test scores in English Language Arts.
“This is the most support the city has ever given to pre-K-2 teachers,” said Andrew Fletcher, director of Early Literacy, one of the people who will be overseeing the program.
Much of the initiative’s millions of dollars in funding will be used to send reading coaches to schools. But instead of working with struggling students, coaches will provide training and support for elementary school teachers – who are then expected to help students improve reading skills.
Program leaders promoted the plan at the Community Education Council of District 10 in late June. The initiative received a cautious response from the audience: While the idea itself was great, the implementation might prove difficult, activists said.
“I’m right behind it and I understand how coaches can help teachers,” said Dean Parker, a former Community Education Council member who attended the meeting. However, he wonders how the DOE will meet its target: “It’s a wonderful goal. But ... it’s unlikely that they will achieve that.”
The ambition is to make sure that “at least two-thirds of students will be able to read with fluency by the end of second grade, with the target of 100 percent literacy by 2026,” according to the Education Department.
Currently, only 30 percent of third-graders in New York City public schools can read at grade level, according to the department’s statistics.
A potential hurdle to implementing the literacy initiative lies in the fact that many young newcomers to the U.S. are entering New York City schools with limited or no English skills, Mr. Parker said.
“There are many immigrants every year,” he said. “So, it’s going to be a portion of second graders who are discovering English as a new language.”
The literacy initiative’s authors seem to recognize the difficulty, and their project envisages additional help for students with special needs and English language learners.
Still, “it’s going to be challenging,” the head of the District 10 Community Education Council, Marvin Shelton, told The Press in a telephone interview.
Mr. Shelton also expressed doubts that tutoring teachers, rather than students, was a particularly efficient approach.
“You hired a coach to teach the teachers and it sounds cumbersome,” he said.
The Education Department counters that coaching the teachers will equip them with the newest instruction methods, which the teachers can then use in every class where they work.
“We have to be thinking about … keeping our eyes on the prize, which is training coaches to be a support to teachers, making sure the teacher experts are supporting the children,” said Esther Klein Friedman, executive director of Literacy and Academic Intervention Services.
Working with English-language learners at an early age would help to ensure they are on track for long-term academic success, she added.
The current focus is training new coaches, she said. So far, 63 out of the 103 coaches for this year’s cohort have been hired and will begin a three-week training, followed by twice-monthly training during the school year.
Reading coaches, who are being recruited from among tenured and experienced K-2 teachers, will rotate between each grade on six-week cycles. Most schools will receive one coach, and smaller schools, with fewer than 50 students per grade, would share a coach.
The initiative will add 14 additional districts in 2017, and the remaining 14 in 2018. The teaching approach will stress five pillars of learning: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, plus writing. To measure the initiative’s progress, Education Department employees will use tools such as Gates-MacGinitie.