Group uses provocative signs to put focus on Triangle’s childhood literacy problems

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

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An indecipherable sign put up by the Bootstraps PAC still catches the eye among a cluster of local campaign signs on N.C. 54 at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill on Thursday morning. The sign invites the reader to scan the lower right corner, which leads to a website about childhood illiteracy in North Carolina.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Nearly half of the Triangle’s low-income third-grade students can’t read well enough to pass state exams.

So a group of Triangle parents and activists is trying to spotlight the wrenching problem of childhood illiteracy in a way people won’t forget. That’s why, among the campaign ads dotting Triangle roadways, other signs show motorists how many low-income children are failing or, by using random groups of letters, how it feels to be illiterate.

Leaders of Bootstraps, the political action committee behind the signs, say it’s especially important to promote childhood literacy. They point to research showing that third-grade students who can’t read well will never read at grade level, are more likely to be high school dropouts and are limited in the jobs they can pursue.

“We’re hoping everybody will see this is a real problem,” said Mary Carey, a Chapel Hill mother and founder of Bootstraps. “It doesn’t just affect that child. It affects everybody.”

Triangle public school officials say they’re already trying to find the best ways to promote reading skills. They’re trying to put into effect the new Read To Achieve program, mandated by the General Assembly, that aims to have every student reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

But Carey and the other members of Bootstraps, which identifies itself as a Triangle-wide, all-volunteer, nonpartisan group, say there’s plenty more that the school districts can do.

From candidates to issues

Like several members of the group, Carey was motivated by problems in getting reading assistance for her children in the local school system.

The parents got together in 2011 to form Bootstraps initially with the idea of endorsing school board candidates. Instead, they’re publicizing the literacy issue.

In September, Bootstraps put up signs around the Triangle saying “Yrnt sqzp apxl!” in red-and-blue lettering. The signs included a QR code that linked to the group’s website. Carey said the signs accomplished the mission of helping people understand what it’s like not to be able to read.

The group put up a second set of signs in Wake County and Chapel Hill with drawings of red and blue-colored stick figures with the words “passed” and “failed.” Carey said the group will post similar signs next year in Durham before their school board elections.

The signs, which also have a QR code, are designed to show that the failure rate for economically disadvantaged students in grades three through eight on the state reading exams is 42.9 percent in Wake County, 43.7 percent in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools and 52.1 percent in Durham. Carey said that in a high-achieving district such as Chapel Hill, it can be a surprise to realize so many low-income children are struggling.

Nyree Sullivan, K-6 English/language arts coordinator for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, said she’s met with Carey to talk about how they can improve their literacy instruction.

Carey said Bootstraps has focused primarily on the low-income kids because their parents are less able to afford tutoring or private schools to get help.

Failure rate expected to rise

The overall failure rates in grades three through eight on the reading exams are 14.8 percent in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, 22.6 percent in Wake and 41.5 percent in Durham.

However, the failure rates will get much higher when the 2012-13 results for the state’s harder new exams are released Nov. 7. Statewide, the passing rate for third-grade students in reading was 46.6 percent. The passing rates are expected to be even lower for low-income students.

Mark Trustin, a Durham attorney and member of the board of directors of Bootstraps, said parents whose children are having reading problems should lobby the school districts for extra help and not give up.

“They try to drag it out to the point that parents give up,” he said.

The leaders of Bootstraps say they’re not educators so they’re not recommending specific reading programs. But Trustin pointed favorably to a partnership between the nonprofit East Durham Children’s Initiative and The Hill Center to help area children with literacy skills. Trustin is also on the boards of both the East Durham Children’s Initiative and The Hill Center, based in Durham.

Some members of Bootstraps have sent their children to The Hill Center, which helps students who have learning disabilities with a program that stresses phonics and smaller class sizes.

Wake County has begun using a phonics-based program similar to what’s used by The Hill Center, according to Sherri Miller, the school district’s director of literacy. She said the program was used in kindergarten last school year and first grade this year and will start in second grade next year.

Miller said the new phonics program is seeing results already. Miller and James Overman, Wake’s senior director of elementary programs, said it’s just one example of how the state’s largest school district has made changes in recent years to improve literacy instruction.

Schools add coaches, training

Miller said the district now has more literacy coaches to help teachers craft their reading lessons, new guides to help teachers plan the 150 minutes a day of reading and writing instruction and more training in literacy instruction for teachers.

Wake has also partnered with community groups for the new WAKE Up and Read initiative, whose goal is to have all students reading on grade level by grade three. The initial focus is on school readiness, which includes encouraging parents to read to their children before they enter kindergarten.

Miller said the campaign will also focus on school attendance and the problem of summer learning loss, in which low-income students tend to fall behind academically during the summer because they’re less likely to be engaged in learning activities.

“We know this will take the community’s help to help children read,” Miller said.

Sullivan said Chapel Hill-Carrboro school officials feel the district has a good reading plan so the focus has been on whether it’s being implemented properly. For instance, she said for the past 1 1/2 years a literacy consultant has been looking at how to tighten up the elementary school program.

The state is now requiring that school districts hold summer camps for third-grade students who are struggling with reading. Sullivan said the district is looking at holding similar summer camps for K-2 students.

“We know it’s working for the majority of our students, but not for all,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to determine why.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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