Help on the way for poor readers

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If you can read this, you’re better off than many people in Southern Nevada.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics about one-fifth of Clark County residents lack basic literacy skills. That includes not only poor readers, but also people who are not native English speakers.

The problem is more severely felt among low-income families. It’s hard to find a good job if you can’t read well. And yet many of these struggling readers attended local or other American schools when they were children.

According to Cathy Davis, the principal at Virgin Valley Elementary School, kindergarten through third grade pupils are learning to read. Afterward, students read to learn. So it’s vital that children are reading up to their grade level by the fourth grade.

Davis notes that the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that nationally 85 percent of the children from low-income families failed to reach proper proficiency reading levels by the fourth grade.

Students must be able to understand the written word from the fourth grade on. If students still are struggling to decode words, they don’t get much meaning from their texts and they don’t learn what they need to know.

Davis cited a study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that found one in six students who are not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade fail to graduate from high school, while only four percent of good readers do not graduate. And among minorities, poor readers are twice as likely as their struggling white classmates to drop out of school.

That matters in Mesquite.

Davis said 64 percent of her students qualify for free or reduced costs lunches because of their families’ income levels. White children make up about 49 percent of the students at Virgin Valley Elementary while Hispanic children represent about 44 percent of the student population. Overall, 26 percent of her 690 students are in the English Language Learners program. And at least 90 students in the kindergarten through third grade at her school are reading below grade level.

Davis adds the Casey Foundation has determined that once that gap between good and poor readers is established, it does not diminish over time.

The elementary school combats the problem with 120 minutes of the school day given to language arts. Tests are given three times per school year, and poor readers are monitored weekly.

There’s before- and after-school tutoring and school aides help with reading tutoring during the school day.

Much of the progress made during the school year in advancing reading skills, however, is lost over the summer recess.

But not for all students. “Students who regularly attended high-quality summer (reading) programs performed better in school than their peers who did not attend the same programs,” Davis told a gathering March 20 at the Eureka Casino Resort.

Eureka CEO Andre Carrier had invited the group to attend the meeting where Davis announced plans to establish that kind of high-quality summer reading program in Mesquite.

However, school budgets are tight, and there’s no funding for the kind of program Davis believes will help all local children read up to their grade level by the fourth grade.

It would be an expensive proposition. Six instructors would be needed over the five-week program at a total cost of $19,200. Sixty individual iPads would cost another $22,500 and bus transportation would add an additional $2,000, plus utilities.

The program would serve kindergartners through second-graders who test in the bottom 10 percent of the student population. Poor arithmetic skills also would be addressed in the summer school.

Carrier says the Eureka would gladly fund this year’s program, but that wouldn’t sustain it. And to be effective it must be continuing.

So Carrier proposes to match community donations up to  $46,000.

Having a community where all children can read up to their grade level would be a major achievement. And Davis and the Eureka should be lauded for taking the problem head-on.

Donations can be made directly to Cathy Davis at Virgin Valley Elementary School, 200 Woodbury Lane, or to the Eureka Casino Resort, ℅ Gerri Chasco, 275 Mesa Blvd.

Local organizations, clubs and even churches should consider helping to raise the funds that will ultimately benefit all of us. The program, if funded, can start this summer. But it can only happen if those of you who can read this do more than just read this.

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