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Early Grade Reading Improvement Program

Greg Wesner, left, and Kristy with their kids Corey, 5, and Gregg II, 6.

Kristy Wesner

Kristy and Greg Wesner

Greg Wesner

A reading achievement pilot program at Verona Elementary School in Battle Creek has students improving reading skills and interest -- starting in kindergarten. 
Kerri Newland says she was shocked to learn two years ago that only five percent of kindergarteners at Verona Elementary School in Battle Creek were reading at grade level. 
The mother of two boys, ages 9 and 7 who attend Verona, Newland says she's even more shocked--this time pleasantly shocked--by the results of a reading program introduced at the school in 2011 that has increased the number kindergarteners reading at grade level. Now more than 70 percent are doing so.
"My 7-year- old is reading at a sixth-grade level," Newland says. "If they weren't focusing on the literacy program I don't know if anybody else would realize the level he's at. They have a better way of tracking their reading level." Half of the students at Verona Elementary are reading above their normal grade level.
Known as the Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement Pilot Project in Battle Creek, the initiative is a collaboration between the Calhoun County Intermediate School District, the United of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, and Battle Creek Public Schools. The United Way provided $75,000 in grant funding for each of the first three years of the project, says Kim Lehman, Literacy Coach for CCISD.
The program served 75 kindergarteners in its first year. First graders were added this year. Next school year, Lehman says, second graders will be included. 
Lehman says the reading program was the result of discussions between officials with the ISD and United Way about how reading scores for third-grade students taking the Michigan Educational Assessment Program were very low.
"We know that reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success," says Kellie Cochrane, with the UWBCKR
Lehman says she knew, if students were going to be able to reach exit benchmarks or above, the proficiency levels had to improve beginning in kindergarten. Benchmark tests are conducted at the beginning of the school year in September and in May to track progress.
"In looking at the data for nine elementary schools, the data that came in for Verona indicated that that building was absolutely not the highest in the district," Lehman says. "The superintendent chose the building for us.
"I was somewhat surprised that the reading scores started so low. I don't think I was surprised as much at the success because we're raising the expectation of students, staff, and parents."
The success of the program at Verona prompted Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools to launch a similar initiative aimed at improving high school graduation rates. 
"We took a group of our staff to see the school in Battle Creek where they were working (on the Verona project)," says Tim Vagts, superintendent. "We saw how effective it was, so we continued the conversation, which led to a teacher committee writing a proposal to submit to the United Way, and this led to Margie McGlinchey writing a grant request."
In response to that request from McGlinchey, Kalamazoo RESA's assistant superintendent for instruction, the Community Investment Cabinet of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region authorized a grant of $58,030 for the project at Galesburg-Augusta Primary School. As a result, teachers get professional development training, parents get support for at-home activities and more reading resources have been provided to the community.
Kristy Wesner says her 6-year-old son wasn't reading when he entered the Verona program as a kindergartener. She says she knew he had to be reading at a "C" level to go on to first grade. "He's now reading at an ‘I' level and getting ready to be tested to go onto the ‘J' level," Wesner says. "I read with him at home all the time now. (The program's) made a big difference."
The yearly program begins with a kickoff event for parents, students, and staff. Events also take place throughout the school year for students and parents. At these gatherings,  in addition to snacks and literacy-focused activities, every child is able to choose a book to take home. Lehman says the United Way funding has been used to purchase these books as well as books for each classroom.
Newland and her sons attended an event recently based on the Maurice Sendak classic "Where the Wild Things Are." Binder Park Zoo staff brought in animals for the students to touch and learn about.
"My 7-year-old picked out a book about George Washington Carver and he also won a Nook," Newland says. "As a single working mother money's kind of tight, and for him to win that, I jumped out of my chair about three feet in the air."
Parents are strongly encouraged to read each day with their children. Newland, a single parent and delivery driver for Pizza Hut, says she reads with her sons as often as she can, but says the boys often take the initiative and read on their own or with each other.
"My 7-year-old will be reading at the breakfast table and at night I'll pop in to the bedroom and they'll both be on the bed reading," she says.
In addition to encouraging reading when not at school, the program recruits volunteer mentors who are each paired with two students who they meet with individually for 15 minutes once a week. These mentors listen as their students read to them and offer the students an opportunity to work with role models who reinforce the value of reading.
Lehman says quite a few of the mentors are Kellogg employees who come to the school on their lunch hour. Others are retired teachers and community residents.
"We want to get community volunteers in the building and we want a good connection with home and parents and get the kids reading at home," she says.
Students earn points for each book they read through the program. Wesner says this is a great incentive. She says she also likes the idea that students can read online and teachers can logon to hear them reading at home.
"This gives them the ambition to want to read," Wesner says.
To keep that motivation going, especially during the summer months when students aren't in school and reading skills can slide, Lehman says the school has a summer program in place.
"We knew when kids left for the summer that getting them to sustain that reading level was really hard to do," Lehman says. "We're opening the school in the summer so students can come in and get books and support."
For those parents who aren't able to provide transportation to school during the summer, a book is mailed each week for 10 weeks to every kindergartener.
"When they came back to school this past fall, 75 percent of those kids who received books retained or exceeded reading levels," Lehman says.
For Wesner, it's pretty simple.
"You have to know how to read," she says.

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