But after six weeks at Samford University with other struggling readers his age, reading is moving up on his list of favorite subjects.
“Math and science have always been my favorite subjects,” the 11-year-old upcoming Rudd Middle School sixth-grader said. “I’d say there’s about a 50-50 chance of reading being one of them now.” That’s not a very high likelihood, but it’s a far cry from where he started, he said.
Mark is among 20 students enrolled this summer in the Pathway to Graduation program, which the Jefferson County school system started this year with a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. The school district partnered with JBS Mental Health and Samford University for the intervention program, which is aimed at middle school students who have low reading skills. The program is held at Samford University.
“What’s so amazing is that the students are engaged. They’re participating,” said Mary Beth Malone, supervisor of exceptional education for Jefferson County schools.
The idea, she said, is to give struggling readers — many of whom are in special education — an intensive summer reading intervention program to help raise their reading skills, with the ultimate goal of increasing graduation rates.
“This is kind of a last stop because once they reach high school, they can legally drop out of school,” said Amanda Hilsmier, associate professor in
Samford University’s School of Education. “We need more participation for struggling readers if regular intervention programs aren’t cutting it.”
Hilsmier is conducting a three-year study on the program and will follow the same group of students through their middle school years to see how much progress they make. If the study finds the program to be successful, she said it could be a model for other districts.
Students were screened for the program and close to 100 applied, Malone said. Besides having referrals from their teachers, students were required to take an IQ test, an achievement test and functional reading assessments. The ones who participated in the program will continue taking assessments for the next three years to monitor their progress.
Jefferson County opened the program up to middle school students from Birmingham city schools as well, though few applied. Of 20 in the program, one is from Birmingham and the rest are Jefferson County students. The students go to Samford University for the program for four hours a day, four days a week for six weeks.
Four Jefferson County teachers with highly qualified rankings and nine student teachers from Samford University work with the students, meaning there is a low student-teacher ratio.
Malone said students study comprehension, decoding (phonics), vocabulary and fluency each day. They also have a reading nook for independent reading each day, as well as group study, where they learn social skills and learn about issues such as how to make it through middle school and bullying. Those sessions are conducted by licensed counselors.
Transportation is provided to the students, as is lunch.
Although many of the students are in special education, the ones in the program have average IQs, Malone said. “These are capable students, they just have low reading scores,” she said. Mark said it took some time to get past his mother signing him up, but now he enjoys the program.
“It might be the teachers, it might be being around the other kids, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve learned about different things, like the third person, second person, first person, syllables. The group sessions are fun. It’s like a fun program and other people might like it, too.”