A $2 million grant could transform how Atlanta schools teach reading


Atlanta schools will spend $2 million over the next three years to improve one of the school district’s basic functions: teaching kids how to read.

In a district where about half of third graders don’t read on grade level, improving reading instruction is essential, superintendent Meria Carstarphen said.

Poor reading skills have far-reaching consequences for students. Those who struggle to read tend to struggle in other subject areas too. And students who can’t read on grade level in elementary school are significantly more likely to drop out of school later on.

“If we can make this happen, this will be a game changer for Atlanta Public Schools,” Carstarphen said.

The money, a grant from the Atlanta Football Host Committee, Chick-fil-A Foundation, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and College Football Playoff Foundation, is paying to train hundreds of teachers in a new, more standardized way to teach reading.

Atlanta’s training comes amid a renewed push from state policymakers to improve reading skills among Georgia students, particularly the state’s youngest.

This year’s state budget included more than $2 million to create a center to train educators of children from infancy through age eight in teaching reading and writing. And First Lady Sandra Deal is chairing a commission examining how Georgia can improve literacy rates.

Atlanta’s approach, called Orton-Gillingham, is already used in some Atlanta schools.

It combines lessons about the structures of words with lessons that encourage students to use their senses to learn, by tracing letter shapes in colored sand, for example, or mapping out the syllables of a word along the lengths of their arms, Carstarphen said. And it includes both teacher lectures and lessons that put students in control, she said.

On Thursday, dozens of teachers gathered in classrooms at the former Coan Middle School, practicing how to explain to students the idea of breaking words into syllables and using colored cards to identify common suffixes.

This year, about 500 Atlanta kindergarten and first-grade teachers from high-poverty schools will go through the training, By 2020, 1,500 teachers districtwide are expected to be trained.

“We’re starting small so we can see our learnings from this summer and then we’re going to super-size the effort over the next three years,” Carstarphen said.

Eventually, Carstarphen hopes to improve reading instruction districtwide, so that even teachers in high school and in math and science can help students with reading.

“Over time, it would be great if we all knew how to do it and did it well,” she said.

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