If there is a science to how young students learn to read, then North Star Academy is the laboratory that is showing promising results.
In a first grade classroom at North Star’s West Side Park Elementary School, a two-hour literacy block recently had students separated by three groups assigned by their current reading levels.
One group worked on phonics with a teacher, the second played reading games and completed assignments based on their reading levels independently on computers, and the third group focused on comprehension with a second teacher.
“There’s been more science, as there’s been more research” about how children learn how to read, said Kristen McCarthy, the principal of the West Side campus. “We ask ourselves, is this most aligned to what we know students need to grow and develop?”
She said the school trains its teachers on the science of reading in the summer and that training, combined with organizing literacy blocks that can focus on small groups of children at a time, has led to strong academic results.
According to the NJSLA, which is New Jersey’s statewide standardized test that was administered in the Spring of 2023, 53% of third graders at North Star schools were proficient in reading, compared with 19% in Newark district schools. In 2022, the state average proficiency for third graders was 42%. The state has not released the state average for 2023.
A new report from JerseyCAN, a nonprofit education research and policy group, argues that a standardized science of reading approach is the surest path forward for New Jersey students who are largely struggling with reading proficiency.
JerseyCAN’s latest report titled “Leveraging Literacy: The Path to Education Recovery in New Jersey,” outlines their argument for a science of reading approach and how they hope to work toward policy change to codify its place in schools across the state.
“Our paramount goal is to lead a cadre of reading evangelists that will educate and push legislators to champion reading by passing laws that make good reading instruction possible, and obligatory in the state of New Jersey,” said Paula White, JerseyCAN’s executive director, in the report.
At North Star, when first graders worked on phonics, the students sat in two straight rows, their navy polos, matching khakis, and united voices striking. The premise of the lessons is to teach students how to break down words into their component elements, sound them out, and eventually recognize those words by sight, and read them in a text. The instructor works off notecards with the students’ names on the back, tailoring their lesson to individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. Sight words are written on a large white pad: snowy, plain, dare, fake.
Nearby, the second group of students works independently at computers wearing matching black headphones.
A third group sat in a circle around their teacher working on reading comprehension. These students worked through a story with loud repetition and lots of interaction – the words “action” and “dialogue” shouted by students with corresponding hand motions. Their teacher asked them to turn to their partners and discuss a comprehension question. When someone is called on to answer the question, the teacher will ask the rest of the students to participate in an evaluation and show whether they agree or not with a thumbs up or down.
The JerseyCan report states that they believe change must begin, “upstream,” in teacher training programs. Further, their goals include science of reading training for current educators, universal literacy screenings with subsequent scheduled assessments, further communications with parents regarding their child’s reading proficiency, school districts adopting high-quality science of focused curriculum materials, and resource allocation that is effective and being measured against student outcomes.
Newark Public Schools (NPS) declined to respond to emails, through their spokesperson Nancy Deering, asking for their opinion on JerseyCAN’s “Leveraging Literacy” report and its call for a science of approach in all New Jersey schools. Additionally, they declined to speak about the district schools with the highest ELA scores: Wilson Avenue School, First Avenue Elementary School, Oliver Street School, Abington Avenue School, and Ann Street School.
In an email, the New Jersey Department of Education shared that their department, “does not comment on potential or pending legislation but shares the goal of improving literacy among New Jersey students. JerseyCAN has been a valued stakeholder in education policy and the Department welcomes collaboration on this important matter.”
“We are at an inflection point in education in our country, on the tail end of being able to use the ESSER funds earmarked for education recovery in the wake of the pandemic,” said White, referring to the various Covid-19 relief funding that districts have received.
Newark alone received over $277 million in Covid relief funding. The last tranche of funds received under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) need to be allocated by this time next year and spent by January 28, 2025.
“As a fundamental building block to all learning, there is no more appropriate way to spend education dollars than to invest in reading,” White said.
JerseyCAN believes that unprecedented Covid funding for districts, coupled with a systematic science of reading approach can and must lead to a “reading revolution” for New Jersey’s youth.