Although there has been progress in recent years, the large majority of students in the Fort Worth school district still can’t read on grade level.
Only a little more than a third of the Fort Worth school district’s students are able to read on grade level, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. Last year, reading was a top priority not only for the Fort Worth school district, but also for the city at large. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced districts to shift focus, helping students become better readers remains a key challenge for district leaders, including a slate of candidates for the district’s Board of Trustees.
Board candidates named several ideas for how schools could boost reading scores, including recruiting volunteers to read with students and capitalizing on partnerships that already exist between the district and community groups. But most important, the district must find a way to engage with parents and encourage them to be more involved in their children’s education, many candidates said.
Fort Worth schools lag behind Texas in literacy
Fort Worth’s reading outcomes have consistently under-performed the state average, and Texas has lagged behind the rest of the nation for years. The district’s reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders slipped in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, falling slightly below where the district scored in 2017. The district also lagged behind other large-city school districts nationwide in the percentage of fourth- and eighth-graders who met the basic or proficient reading levels.
In 2019, 35% of students in the district read on grade level, according to TEA figures. Only a quarter of Black students in the district read on grade level.
Statewide, fourth-grade reading scores remained flat in 2019 as compared to 2017 and declined among eighth-graders, according to the report. Texas’ average reading scores among fourth-graders and eighth-graders have been below the national average since 2007, when the state tied the national average in both grades.
In response, Texas lawmakers included a provision in House Bill 3, the 2019 overhaul of the state’s education finance system, that required that teachers and principals in kindergarten through third grade undergo training on the science of teaching reading. It also requires districts to adopt a phonics-based reading curriculum for kindergarten through third grade.
The Fort Worth school district is in the middle of a shift in its philosophy of teaching reading. The district is placing a greater emphasis in the science of teaching reading at all levels and making sure teachers are prepared to work with students on literacy.
As a part of that change, teachers will spend less time working with small groups and more time teaching reading skills to their entire classes. Before, teachers divided their classes into groups of students with similar reading skills. Teachers rotated through those groups, working with each group separately while students in the other groups did self-directed activities. While that model allowed teachers to focus on only a few students at a time, it also meant that students spent the majority of the time doing something other than working with their teachers.
Parent involvement is a priority, candidates say
Several candidates for the district’s Board of Trustees spoke of the important role parents play in helping their children develop reading skills. Board secretary Anael Luebanos, who is running for reelection in District 8, said in an interview with the Star-Telegram’s editorial board that he’d like to see the district develop a strategy for engaging parents. Teachers in the district work hard, he said, but if parents aren’t involved in their children’s education, teachers will have a tall task ahead of them. Ultimately, Luebanos said, the board needs to hold Superintendent Kent Scribner accountable for the district’s academic outcomes.
Michael Ryan, a candidate for the Board of Trustees’ District 7 seat, said the district’s reading numbers are worrisome. The district took a big step in 2016 when it announced the 100x25 initiative, which aims to have 100% of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. But the district isn’t there yet, and Ryan said he doubts the district will meet that goal at its current pace.
When that initiative began, it had strong community support, Ryan said. Mayor Betsy Price, members of the Fort Worth City Council and other community leaders talked publicly about the importance of reading and took time to work with students on literacy. Those examples were important, he said. When students see leaders in their community reading, it can help them want to read themselves, he said. Once the pandemic ends and life returns to normal, Ryan hopes to see the city renew its focus on literacy.
The district’s literacy problem is too big for the district to solve on its own, Ryan said. He thinks district leaders need to find volunteers to come to schools to read with students one-on-one. Many grandparents of students are available and eager to help, he said. It’s been difficult for schools to recruit in-person help during the pandemic. But once restrictions are lifted, he said he hopes to see the district try to re-engage those community partners.
Although schools have been closed to visitors for more than a year, in some ways, the pandemic has made it easier for schools to connect students with community volunteers, said Norman Robbins, the incumbent candidate for the District 7 seat.
Robbins volunteers as a reading tutor for second graders at the Leadership Academy at Mitchell Boulevard Elementary School. The tutoring sessions moved online when the pandemic began. The student he works with this year lives miles away, he said, but because they work together virtually, that distance doesn’t matter. That gives them more flexibility, he said.
Robbins said he thinks students pay closer attention during virtual tutoring sessions than they do in person. When he works with students in a classroom, they can get distracted by other things in the room or other students walking down the hallway, he said. But when they’re interacting through a computer screen, they’re better able to focus, he said.
The district’s outcomes, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, aren’t as strong as Robbins would like. But he’s optimistic about the district’s chances of helping struggling students. Teachers are able to pinpoint exactly where students’ weaknesses are and home in on them, he said. And teachers, administrators and school staff will do everything they can to reconnect with students who have disengaged from school this year, he said.
“I don’t think that our school district will ever let a student lie fallow,” Robbins said. “I think we will always continue to try to reach them in some form or fashion.”
Early voting for the Fort Worth school board begins April 19. Election Day is May 1.