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New year brings new focus on early literacy, smaller classes

Many students who returned to Buffalo schools on Thursday found smaller class sizes and a greater focus on reading in the early grades, and district leaders hope that will lay a stronger foundation for children to achieve greater success in the long run.

Along with lowering class sizes in kindergarten, the district is hiring additional literacy specialists this year who will provide extra support during reading, which should permit teachers to essentially reduce class sizes during that period and provide students more individualized attention.

The new focus underscores a push seen across the country as many districts struggle to improve student performance, particularly as gauged under the Common Core standards. Research consistently shows that a child’s success or failure in the early grades – particularly when it comes to literacy – can set the path for the rest of their time in school.

“There’s good reason to think that’s the place to put your resources,” said Jeremy Finn, a distinguished professor of education at the University at Buffalo and a national authority on lower class sizes. “That’s the time of most rapid development for kids. That’s the time to do it.”

This year’s return to school for the city’s more than 30,000 students brings new challenges for a district that has historically struggled to raise pupil performance. Twenty-five schools in the district are in receivership and at risk of an outside takeover if they do not improve under the control of new Superintendent Kriner Cash.

Some school officials say efforts like the focus on class size and literacy will be critical to the district’s success.

This focus is especially important for children from low-income backgrounds – 84 percent of Buffalo students fall into that category – who often come to school exposed to far fewer words than their more-affluent peers. The longer it takes for them to catch up, the more money schools have to spend on remedial programs to assist them.

“That’s often where they make it or break it,” said Linda Cimusz, chief academic officer for the Buffalo Public Schools.

While much attention is often paid to graduation rates, districts across New York are increasingly putting more focus on the early grades, ramping up prekindergarten and kindergarten programs and funneling resources into reading programs in those grades.

Educators say the early years are particularly important because of the rapid pace at which children’s brains develop during that stage of life.

Third grade seems to be the make or break point for students to master literacy skills before they move on to more complex material in the classroom. The Campaign for Grade Level Reading reports that students who do not hit the proficiency mark at that point are four times more likely to drop out of high school. The dropout rate is twice as high for black and Hispanic children, the campaign reports.

Finn’s research shows a similar long-term effect for students who had lower class sizes. For instance, in a Tennessee study dubbed Project STAR – for Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio – children who had smaller class sizes for four consecutive years performed better throughout high school. Their chances of graduating were also higher.

That’s largely because teachers in smaller classes can give students more individualized attention. Students also tend to behave better and participate more.

“All of the research together demonstrates conclusively that small class sizes produce academic benefits,” Finn said. “There really is a point when a class size gets too big that teachers really can’t do what they were hired to do.”

The Buffalo school district’s new effort starts in kindergarten, which for the first time this year administrators are limiting to 20 to 25 students, depending on the schools’ needs and standing with the state. The district did not previously have a policy limiting class size, and last year the issue came to light when some kindergarten class sizes surpassed 30.

Administrators are also working on plans to lower class sizes in first to third grade in the coming years. District administrators are expected to bring forth those plans in the next month.

As the district works to lower class sizes, some schools will see an infusion of literacy specialists at those grade levels. Those specialists will work alongside teachers to provide extra support to students, working with small groups of children and in effect lowering class sizes during the reading period. That will involve helping assess students’ skills, and offering targeted instruction to hit the areas students need more help.

The district will launch pilot programs at six schools, equipping them with four additional literacy specialists – one at each primary grade level.

“The hope is that having somebody really target the things those students need will get those students on track meeting the targets,” said Valarie Kent, principal at School 18, the Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Academic Excellence, one of the pilot sites for the literacy effort.

The others are Harriet Ross Tubman School 31, Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School 37, Hamlin Park School 74, Early Childhood Center School 82, and West Hertel Academy School 94.