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Park Rapids schools pushing reading skills

PARK RAPIDS - The path to a successful student begins with reading. Lots of it.

That's the philosophy behind a recent push in Park Rapids schools to identify kids who struggle with printed words, and to help them at the earliest opportunity.

A program called Response to Intervention (RTI) works with teachers to conduct assessments of incoming first- and second- graders to see what their reading levels are, then help the children who fall below certain national norms.

The goal is to get all kids reading at a 50 percent national competency level in those early grades.

"There's data that says if the child scores at the 50th percentile or above there's a strong indicator they're going to have good reading success," RTI director Bob Kapsner told the Park Rapids School Board at its regular meeting Monday night. "They will be readers; they will be able to handle the curriculum."

Kapsner, a retired teacher, noticed when he was testing 15 students during the 2005-06 school year, many of them fell into a void where federal aid wasn't readily available to help them learn.

"They were at the bottom of the class in reading and math," Kapsner recalled. They weren't necessarily categorized as special education students. And dwindling Title 1 funds, obtained to supplement educational efforts of low achieving students, could not be counted on.

But under No Child Left Behind, schools were nevertheless obligated to get these kids reading. RTI was born.

Two sets of fall assessments now help educators identify which kids should be singled out for extra help with reading.

One set of assessments informally screens their reading abilities and is put together by teachers. Those screens ask children to identify letters, letter sounds, word beginnings and endings and familiarity with rhymes.

Another benchmark assessment, for the RTI program, assesses how many correct words the children can read within a specified time period. The two dovetail to identify kids who need help reading.

Alice Broughton works with first-graders. Some can read when they first walk into a classroom; many can't. She works with four separate reading groups throughout each day to bridge those disparities.

"There are so many tests we have to conduct for special ed kids," she said. "This actually saves money" because it identifies kids early that don't need special education, but still need help. By working with kids that are struggling, she says, the schools can avoid the administrative time needed for the voluminous amount of special education reporting required for those programs.

But educators can also reach out at a very early stage to help kids who just need "a shot in the arm," as Kapsner characterizes the RTI program, now in its second year.

The assessments are again conducted in the winter and spring to measure the student's progress.

Broughton said students can be in the program whether they're identified as special education students or not. That option has garnered positive parental feedback, she said.

One mother felt her child needed extra attention to read, and when school officials looked at his assessment scores, he scored low compared to national averages. He was subsequently included in the program.

Both Kapsner and Broughton work closely with regular classroom teachers to identify kids who may be struggling, even temporarily, and to get them extra help immediately.

"It's a fluid situation," Broughton told the board. If a teacher reports that a student is reading competently, that student leaves the program. Meanwhile another might be struggling, so he or she is included.

Because the program is in its infancy, positive results are just beginning to show, Kapsner said. More will be known by yearend.

Second-graders have a different curriculum because by then, most students can read. Fall assessments require that second-graders read 51 correct words per minute, and add to those numbers weekly.

Both Broughton and Kapsner say they are noticing that fewer first-graders recognize letters and their sounds than in years past.

"Pre-schoolers at age 4 need to know eight nursery rhymes before they enter school," Kapsner said. "If they do, the national data says they will be competent readers at second grade. What is discouraging is that we have so many kindergartners coming in that have no idea about rhyming.

"So all those things grandmas used to do like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" was so important because it rhymed, it had closure, it was predictable. All the things children need for reading," he said.

"If you look at the data nationally, the number of words children know coming into kindergarten is less," Kapsner said. "It's directly related to the lack of reading by parents to their pre-schoolers."

The educators have high marks for the Minnesota-based program they're using. It's called "Read Naturally." Computer programs and books engage kids in reading, understanding phonics and learning letter sounds and structures.

The RTI program will eventually cater to high achieving students, Broughton hopes. By identifying them from their test scores, it will channel them into book discussions and reading groups for their abilities.