Henrico County VA

Citizens urge increased reading focus

Hundreds petition HCPS for Eastern Henrico pilot program; but system says efforts began in 2013
Students display signs urging changes to Henrico County Public Schools' reading instruction, while Wilder Middle School sixth-grader Keane Younger addresses the crowd at a RISC meeting May 2.
Charging that they’ve been lied to repeatedly by public officials, organizers of a community meeting in Eastern Henrico May 2 criticized the Henrico County Public Schools system and demanded changes to the way county schools teach students to read.

At the Nehemiah Action Assembly at St. Paul’s Baptist Church, speakers from RISC (Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Community) called for immediate action by HCPS to address the struggles of thousands of children in Eastern Henrico schools who they said are not learning how to read. Before an audience of about 500 people, speakers argued that the school system’s current attempts to address the issue are failing miserably.

“The teachers who cry out ‘This isn’t working for our children’ are not heard,” said Rev. Vernon Hurte of New Light Baptist Church in Richmond, “and the children don’t even have a voice in the matter.”

Sixteen elementary schools in the county – three-quarters of which are in Eastern Henrico – did not pass their SOL reading exams last year. RISC officials want the school system to implement a “Direct Instruction” pilot program in grades K-2 at five of those schools in the coming school year to determine if that lecture-based model in which students learn passively is more effective than the current approach. They’ve estimated that such a plan would cost about $500,000 and suggested that revenue from the Henrico meals tax – which raises more than $20 million annually, all earmarked for the school system – could be used as funding.

Members of RISC (a 17-congregation coalition that works to address regional social issues) visited a charter school in Baltimore last year to observe students there whose reading skills they said have improved dramatically since the Direct Instruction approach was introduced.

HCPS officials declined on several occasions to meet with RISC to hear details of the concept, before ultimately meeting April 7, according to RISC Education Committee Chairwoman Brenita Younger.

Younger's son, Wilder Middle School sixth-grader Keane Younger, gave an impassioned speech during which he said that many of his classmates struggle with basic reading comprehension and that significant class time is wasted as a result. He urged the school system to devote more resources to working with such students.

"I pray that this will be a change in the system," he said.

Without specifically mentioning Henrico officials, Hurte launched into a verbal assault of “public officials” who he said had lied about the ability of certain students to read or learn effectively because of societal barriers they face.

But, he said, “We have chosen to reject the lies of our culture.”

HCPS has been addressing issue
Since 2013, HCPS has been implementing grade-specific literacy programs designed to place a stronger emphasis on instruction for kindergartners and first- and second-graders countywide. The program is designed to ensure that all students are reading on grade level by third grade, HCPS Director of Elementary Education Michelle McQueen-Williams told the School Board during its April 28 work session.

The approach focused initially on kindergarten in 2013-14, then on first grade last year and this year on second grade, she said.

Each year, as the focus shifted to a new grade level, HCPS administrators formed a new literacy curriculum committee specific to that grade, composed of teachers from all five magisterial districts, McQueen-Williams said. The committees have helped design and implement new standards and training efforts for teachers to use to improve student literacy.

Each elementary school in the county has a Reading Administrative Designee (RAD) who ensures that teachers are effectively implementing those training techniques. Based on data and feedback from the first quarter of this school year, officials directed additional funding to address specific areas of need countywide in their second-grade literacy efforts.

The school system also has assigned district literacy coaches to spend one or two days a week at each of the elementary schools that are struggling with student literacy.

“We all agree with the absolute fundamental importance of all our students being able to read,” Varina District School Board member John Montgomery said during the work session.

‘We know there is a problem’
Monday’s event followed an at-times oddly scripted format, in which RISC officials asked several direct questions of invited guests from HCPS, VCU Health System and CHAT (Church Hill Activities and Tutoring) seeking commitment to RISC’s educational and job-improvement efforts. The guests answered in “yes” or “no” format, as if under oath.

RISC members scattered throughout the venue then guided the audience whether to applaud and cheer or to remain silent following each answer. Organizers even conducted two “practice” responses at the beginning of the meeting, to illustrate how the audience should interpret the hand signals of the scattered RISC members.

Fairfield District School Board member Roscoe Cooper attended the meeting and told the audience that he would join RISC officials on their next trip to Baltimore this fall to observe direct instruction.

“I am here to listen and learn,” he said, to applause. “I am willing to go anywhere to see anyone who is doing anything to help our children to succeed.”

The school system is working to improve the reading skills of students who most need help, he said.

“We know that there is a problem with the reading level of our children and our scores, and we are going to assess it, address it and we are going to change it.”

RISC officials vowed to continue to exert pressure on the school system to act on their recommendations.

“It will be our persistence and the power of our numbers that will persuade the powers that be,” said Rev. Brenda Summerset, minister of Christian education at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Richmond and education chair for RISC. “Officials in Henrico County have not taken us seriously. We must become one of God’s plagues in the house of the Henrico County School Board. We must stand firm until every child in Henrico County can read and every teacher has the tools he or she needs.”

Summerset urged those in attendance to “swarm” the Henrico County School Board’s May 26 meeting to make their voices heard. RISC officials intend to present to the board hundreds of signed letters supporting their push for a pilot reading program. They handed out the letters to attendees of Monday’s event and collected them, with signatures, at its conclusion.

“We will win justice for these children,” Summerset said. “Let’s get ready to rise and irritate the power brokers to act.”

Also at Monday’s gathering, RISC officials introduced plans to work with the VCU Health System, HCA Virginia and Reynolds Community College to help identify, train and hire 350 medical workers from low-income communities.

All three organizations have committed to partner to make that goal – providing living-wage jobs for unemployed or underemployed residents while filling critical hospital positions at the same time – a reality.
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