Commentary: A new approach in literacy, math education

Studies prove it is critical that students can read at grade level by the end of third grade.|

We have a serious problem in this country.

Too many kids are not learning to read. This has grave consequences that not only affect children but also our communities and our future. According to Dr. Amie Carter, Sonoma County’s superintendent of schools, “People who struggle with reading are four times more likely to drop out of high school, to end up in the criminal justice system and to live in poverty.”

Studies prove it is critical that students can read at grade level by the end of third grade. Third grade is the year when students make the leap from learning to read, to reading to learn, and that’s when they can begin to teach themselves.

In California, there are roughly 440,000 third-grade students and 58% — or around 250,000 of them — are not proficient in reading.

Here in Sonoma County, out of about 4,600 third-graders, around 2,500 are not proficient in reading. That’s 55% of Sonoma County third-graders who are not proficient.

It’s the same with math. Lack of math skills inhibits cognitive development, hampers decision-making from paying bills to assessing risk, and reduces employment opportunities in a world of technology.

For the state of California, more than half of our third-graders are not proficient in math, and in Sonoma County, 69% are not proficient in math.

Kindergarten to third grade is the time when we must intercept these kids and get them on the path to competent literacy and math skills, in order to set them up for future success.

Fixing the problem requires a partnership between the community and schools.

Our educational nonprofit, K-3 Innovation, has developed a model that provides individualized instruction to help children learn to read and do math: The K-3 Proficiency Project.

The strength of the project is how it supports a school’s existing curriculum. By tailoring our approach to each child’s needs, we set children up for a lifetime of opportunity and success.

We use real-time student performance data. In-class academic specialists help teachers interpret this data allowing them to respond to the individualized needs of each student— at their own pace and level!

The K-3 Proficiency Project is in two Sonoma County Schools and has proven results.

The first school, Sonoma Charter School, is now in its sixth year of the project. Reading scores for third-graders jumped from 30% proficient pre-program to 85% proficient at the end of the 2023 school year on STAR Assessment results.

Third-grade math scores improved from 48% proficient pre-program to 86% proficient at the end of the 2023 school year.

The second school, Sassarini Elementary, in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, a diverse transitional-kindergarten to fifth-grade school, has completed its third year with the project. Reading scores improved from 42% proficient pre-program to 60% proficient at the end of the 2023 school year, and math scores climbed from 53% proficient to 83% proficient at the end of the 2023 school year.

People take notice when student performance increases dramatically, especially parents. A Sonoma Charter School parent said, “With our middle child who has learning differences, she’s a special needs child, this program was exceptional in that it really identifies through the areas of deficiencies and where the teacher could push in and really support her in her reading as she progressed.”

The K-3 Proficiency Project provides:

• Full K3i team guidance and training.

• In-class support and collaboration with specialists, for both teachers and students.

• We train teachers, so each school is able to independently continue the program long into the future. Sustainability is critical.

WestEd, a nationally respected independent research firm, concluded in its 2023 assessment of the project:

“Students from all grades at both Sonoma Charter and Sassarini Elementary have demonstrated excellent growth and progress since fall 2020. The K-3 Proficiency Project shows consistent and strong promise for having positive impacts on student reading and math outcomes.”

At K-3 Innovation, we believe that every child deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential. We are committed to making that a reality!

Dr. Amie Carter said, “Please join us and provide the financial support needed to expand to additional Sonoma County Schools.”

Gary D. Nelson is the founder of the educational nonprofit, K-3 Innovation; and Marc Elin is its executive director.

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