Thousands of young Buffalo Public Schools students fell further behind in key literacy benchmarks as they progressed through the district’s early grades, according to a study from 2006 to 2011 ordered by a former superintendent.
The alarming results prompted a former School Board president to open a charter school to try to reverse the developmental decline she saw occurring in the city’s schools.
But what about the more than 10,000 kindergartners through third-graders left in district schools?
There is no evidence the district used the information to revamp instruction after the departure of then-Superintendent James A. Williams and many of his administrators, or that students today are not continuing to fall further behind as they progress through the system.
“That was part of our frustration. Williams had wanted to get some of his middle managers to work with us, particularly to use Title 1 funding to help continue that work. But the Title 1 people said there was no more money, and many of those administrators have moved on,” said Patricia Dyer, who conducted the study and later co-founded the Charter School of Inquiry.
In fact, there does not seem to be anyone in the district now who can remember using the data to improve instruction, and some current administrators don’t even remember seeing the information.
Frustrated, Dyer and former School Board President Helene Kramer used the material as motivation to open their Edison Avenue charter school last fall along with four others.
“The public school system is rigged against children,” Kramer said. “Kids come into BPS ready for kindergarten but then drop off” academically.
It was Williams’ idea to track students annually in the Early Reading First pre-school program to measure their academic progress once they entered city schools, starting in 2007. But when he resigned as superintendent in 2011, the data and any subsequent program changes to reverse the downward trend fell by the wayside, by many accounts, including that of Anne Botticelli, the district’s current chief academic officer.
Botticelli was Williams’ supervisor of English from 2005 to 2006, director of English from 2006 to 2010 and, beginning in October 2010, associate superintendent for elementary teaching and learning.
“I did see the initial presentation of the data. I don’t have an actual report, but I was there the first time they showed the data,” said Botticelli.
New school started
For Kramer and Dyer, the studies became the primary motivation to start a charter school and give families an alternative.
“We saw that over 70 percent of children were not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade. There were more low-performing schools,” Kramer said. “We were seeing kids drop out by the thousands. We asked ourselves, ‘Do we continue to watch these trends or do we do something about it?’ ”
Education experts agree that third grade is the turning point for students to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma, and poverty compounds the problem, according to a 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Poor children are three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate than their more affluent peers if they don’t learn to read by third grade, the study found. And black and Latino students – who make up 67 percent of the Buffalo Public Schools enrollment – are eight times more likely to drop out if they are poor and aren’t reading at grade level by third grade.
Those are the odds that Buffalo schoolchildren face, and public schools are failing them, said Kramer, who was a School Board member from 1994 to 1999, serving as president in 1999. She went on to found Read to Succeed Buffalo and was its executive director from 2007 to 2011.
The study tracked about 300 children annually in Early Reading First, a federally funded program for 3- and 4-year-olds run by Read to Succeed, which won a $4.1 million competitive grant in 2007 to enhance literacy in pre-schoolers, particularly those from low-income families. Buffalo’s program was run at five Head Start centers.
Williams made Buffalo schools a partner in the grant application because he wanted Read to Succeed to evaluate the children who graduated from Head Start and entered city schools.
That gave Read to Succeed access to the district’s results from the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, assessments given to children too young to take the normal state assessment exams that begin in third grade.
“We believe we were the only ones who collected data on the children we served through” third grade, Kramer said.
The evaluation showed that the gains the Early Reading First students had made in preschool began to fade by the end of kindergarten. And these pupils, as well as the thousands who had not been in the program, fell further behind in meeting expected benchmarks as they advanced from grade to grade in the Buffalo schools.
For instance, in the 2006 kindergarten class of 2,648 students, 72 percent met the literacy skills benchmarks. By the end of first grade, only 53 percent were performing on par, a number that declined to 50 percent by second grade and to 47 percent by third grade. And in third grade, only 29 percent of the pupils performed satisfactorily on the state English language arts assessments.
Subsequent cohorts of students showed similar declines as they progressed from kindergarten through third grade.
“When we saw the outcomes dip significantly in the middle of first grade and then pretty much stay the same throughout second grade and saw the very low ELA scores from state testing, we decided to look at other cohorts of children,” Kramer said. “We were startled to see that the trend was the same.”
Williams shared data
The point of sharing the performance results with the district was to effect change, said Williams, who was superintendent from 2005 until 2011 and now lives in Montgomery County, Md.
“We got the data, and I wanted the data to see what corrections we had to make in order to improve,” he said in a telephone interview.
Williams said he met every month with Kramer and other members of Read to Succeed to discuss the data but got little traction in implementing strategies to stem the decline. Change takes time, and frequent turnovers in administrations and School Board members don’t help, Williams said.
“When you look at data like that, change doesn’t come in one year. It takes a while to infuse it into the teaching and learning process,” he said.
When he left, so did many members of his staff.
“The whole administration changed, even the people in the curriculum department,” he said.
District officials today could not say whether similar declines are still occurring. Rather than focus on the past, Botticelli concentrated on what the district is doing now.
“Part of our early intervention strategy is to make sure we’re providing the right supports for children. It’s key to us to make sure we train our teachers in appropriate methods and support our teachers in the programs we ask them to use,” she said.
The strategies – which are components of the district’s New Education Bargain with Students and Parents – include a rigorous curriculum aligned to standards, using research-based materials and practices like a core reading program and interventions depending on the needs of each student.
“For example, a student is not strong in English. We would put ‘scaffolds’ in place for them like a sentence frame,” Botticelli explained. “You give them the start of a sentence and they finish it.”
As the student becomes more proficient, the supports are removed.
Botticelli said the district also focuses on providing social and emotional supports for students, increasing parental engagement and decreasing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to approximately 18 to 22 students.
“One of the most important things we have to do is prepare students to be successful by grade three,” Botticelli said.
Three times a year, the district measures a child’s alphabet knowledge, vocabulary knowledge and other skills such as listening, rhyming, alliteration, syllabication and segmenting sentences in pre-K, she said. In addition, district leaders are looking to purchase a new pre-K literacy program.
“We appreciate the support of the community and various community organizations that want to help our students,” Botticelli said. “I can tell you that we are, and have been, very focused at all times on trying to improve our instructional program by using data from multiple measures to inform our work.”
Applying the study
For their part, Kramer and Dyer applied what they learned from the early reading study at their Charter School for Inquiry.
There is a literacy coach who works with all the teachers on reading instruction. There is a teacher and a teaching assistant in each classroom and an extended-day program from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. for homework and enrichment activities, Dyer said.
In addition, teachers assess pupils’ alphabet knowledge and beginning sounds four times a year to gauge the pre-reading level needed to get ready to read, Dyer said.
“Learning to read is rocket science,” Dyer said. “You really have to focus on putting the skills together.”
The school also focuses on showing parents how to help their kids at home, said Kramer, adding that many of the Read to Succeed parents noticed that their children were not doing well after entering the Buffalo schools.
“You can tell parents, ‘Get ready for kindergarten.’ Or you can tell parents, ‘Get your kid ready to learn 13 letters’ and give them a plan,” said Kramer.