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In Fort Worth, A New Literacy Coalition Wants All Third Graders Reading At Grade Level

Stella M. Chávez
A new Fort Worth reading coalition wants to get 100 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025.

In Fort Worth public schools, just three out of every 10 third graders are reading at grade level. That’s a problem the school district, city and business community is trying to fix. They’ve just formed a coalition to boost literacy.

KERA visited one elementary school that’s been touted as a model for the district.

Second grade teacher Anna Cazares stands in front of her students at Oakhurst Elementary. They're reading a book about a boy who gets a dog named Gus.

After the students have read the book once, they go back and read it again, this time stopping every time they hear a short vowel.

“Ken,” reads Cazares.

“Ken,” repeat the students.

"Ohhh, what sound do we hear?" she asks them.

"Eh, Eh, Eh, Eh, Eh ...," respond the students.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Students at Oakhurst Elementary School in Fort Worth are outperforming their peers at other district schools in reading.

The district is happy with what’s happening at this dual-language school northeast of downtown Fort Worth. Students are outperforming their peers on reading tests, and the new Fort Worth literacy partnership wants to figure out if reading strategies like these is one of the reasons why students here are doing so well.

The group’s goal: to get 100 percent of the district’s third graders reading at grade level by 2025. Kids who read at grade level are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.

That’s critical, not just for school districts, but cities, which need a well-educated workforce. That idea really hit home for Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price recently, when a company decided not to move there.

"We were getting very positive vibrations from them,” Price said. “And at the last minute, they decided they were going to Austin instead of Fort Worth, and I was pretty taken back."

Price wanted to know why they weren’t sold on Fort Worth.

"They said 'We love Fort Worth. We thought everything was great, but we have to tell you that we're worried about your education pipeline.’” Price said. “They'd been doing their homework and they said, 'We're going to Austin because Austin has stronger public education.' "

Price wouldn’t name the small technology company, but officials told her it wasn't the city's current workforce that was the problem. It’s the future workforce, they told her.

That’s why this new group plans to analyze test scores and other data – and share with that data with the public. The information will be posted online so parents and others can view it. For example, how third graders at each elementary school in the district are performing.

“Sharing this data in a very public and easy to understand way, will help all of us to see the impact on Fort Worth as a whole,” said Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway. “When one school or even one child suffers, when we can see not only how our neighboring school is doing but also the school down the highway is underperforming.”

Rose and other business leaders will be heavily involved, such as volunteering to read to or mentor students. They may also help fund new books and other materials for schools.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Students at Oakhurst Elementary wait in line to pick out a book to read.

All say they want to see more positive examples like Oakhurst. More than 90 percent of students there are economically disadvantaged and most are English Language Learners.

"Our school was considered a bright spot,” said Guadalupe Cortez, principal at Oakhurst. “And so, compared to other schools that have similar demographics, we are outscoring not only in those schools, but we're also outscoring the district average."

Cortez says the teachers focus on lesson plans and making sure students master a subject the first time they're taught it.

They're also doing something different here -- it's called looping.

"We have certain teachers that they stay in one grade level,” Cortez said. “For example, we have a second grade teacher, so she teaches second grade, but then the next year she moves up with her kids to third grade. So the kids get to know the teacher, the teachers get to know the students and the kids outperform other classes where we are not doing this."

Back at Anna Cazares’ class, the lesson on identifying short vowels continues. The students read out loud, pointing to each word in their books.

"Ken got a pet pup,” reads Cazares.

“Ken got a pep pup,” the students repeat.

“Gus is his pup.”

“Gus is his pup."

Cazares is pleased. These kids seem to have their reading skills down.

Learn more about this coalition's efforts here.