Chicago schools brace for loss of Reading First funds

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The merits of Reading First—the $1 billion per year early literacy program created under No Child Left Behind—have been the subject of national debate, but local literacy experts and officials say the program has had some success here and are lamenting its imminent disappearance.

The merits of Reading First—the $1 billion per year early literacy
program created under No Child Left Behind—have been the subject of
national debate, but local literacy experts and officials say the
program has had some success here and are lamenting its imminent
disappearance.

Over the past seven years, CPS received $12.5 million to implement
Reading First in 116 schools. The program aims to build literacy skills
in students from kindergarten through 3rd grade.

But last year, Congress decided to stop funding it. Illinois was
eligible to receive a limited amount of rollover funding for a final
year, so the program remains active in 37 of the neediest Chicago
schools.

In its place, Congress is expected to pass the LEARN (Literacy
Education for All Results for the Nation) Act. As written LEARN would
provide $2.35 billion annually for literacy programs, but the money
will be used for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. Only about 13 percent
will be targeted to early literacy. And experts don’t expect that the
bill will be fully funded.

That worries CPS Reading First manager Carmel Perkins, who stresses
that strong literacy is important for young children because reading
and comprehension skills are very difficult to develop once children
reach adolescence.

CPS saw improvement in standardized test scores for schools that used
Reading First, Perkins notes. The district is now looking for other
funding to continue some semblance of the program.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Perkins says. “The program works.”

Sarah Mead, education writer for the nonprofit public policy institute,
the New America Foundation says that people across the nation also are
worried about the loss of early literacy dollars.

“There are good reasons to fund programs for adolescents, but doing
that without increasing the overall funding will take away money that
should be focused on the early grades,” Mead says.

   

Created in 2001 under the No Child Left Behind Act, Reading First
combined teacher training, intense in-class instruction and a strong
commitment to parents to continue instruction with program materials at
home.

Research from the Institute of Education Sciences showed that
nationally, Reading First did not substantially improve test scores.
But many districts, including Chicago’s, liked the program and its
methods.

Because of the program’s emphasis on teacher training and professional development, the impact should be felt for years to come.

“The point of the program is to build sustainability,” says William
Teale, an education professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“By the time funding ends, teachers are all trained up so they can
continue teaching.”

Carson Elementary teacher Kristina Utley says she continues to use Reading First methods and will continue to do so.

At Carson, in Gage Park, the student body is 93 percent Latino and
Reading First is used primarily with 3rd-graders who are learning
English. In just three months, Utley says, the program’s methods have
shown concrete results from the 25 3rd-graders she teaches

“They have gone up an average of four to six reading levels since October,” Utley says.

She also praises the quality of Reading First materials. Starting at
beginning reading levels, teachers are provided with a large library of
books for students to read in the classroom and at home.     

“The kids have grown so much, and the books have really helped,” Utley says. “They’re actually starting to love to read.”