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A freshman is flanked by vocabulary words at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago. Photos: Lina Lutton, WBEZ
A freshman is flanked by vocabulary words at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago. Photos: Lina Lutton, WBEZ

A high school confronts its reading troubles

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Earlier this week, we learned what life has been like for a man who's just learning to read and write at age 48. He remembers shame at school dances, and being shunned as "slow."

Students who can't read by the time they're in high school often have deep challenges with learning disabilities...and self esteem. By one count, as many as 70 percent of incoming high school students are behind in reading. Not a little behind, but 2 to 3 GRADES behind. It's a problem that cuts through urban and rural settings.

For Front and Center, Linda Lutton reports on how one Chicago school is dealing with the problem.

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Social studies teacher Dustin Voss helps a student read a question on a class test. Voss says he realized quickly he had to figure out how to teach reading as well as social studies.

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Fenger High School is in a rough area on Chicago’s South Side

Poverty and safety are some of the school’s major concerns. READING is another.

“ Well, I’m not a good reader at all.”

Mia Weathington is a junior. More than halfway through high school, Mia still struggles. I met her as she was tackling a news article:

“Are rich people –I don’t know that word…oh… unethical.
Do you know what unethical means? No. Do you know what ethics are? No.”

Mia said, “ It’s like sometimes I just don’t get the words. And even if I know the word, it just doesn’t click with me sometimes. So I wasn’t a good reader up in grammar school. I really don’t pass spelling tests.”

Mia has a big smile. Her teachers say she’s a sweetheart. One told me she’s a teacher’s dream. But she says her grammar school teachers didn’t notice she couldn’t read well, “ They ask you, “Do you want to read this paragraph?” You say, ‘No.” They don’t ask why—they just go on to the next person. I always said no. I was above the standards in reading and math and science. Don’t know how, but I was. Most times, you ain’t gotta read to know the answers to the question. I read the question, match the words up in the passage—there go your answer.”

Kids enter Fenger High school at a fifth or sixth grade reading level. This year, principal Elizabeth Dozier is trying out a radical plan—a school-wide focus on reading, “ Reading is a fundamental right. I mean, you can’t really function in society if you cannot read.”

So every 9th grader is attending a daily, double period READING class. Not an ENGLISH class… no Romeo and Juliet—a READING class.

Teacher Thomas Goodwin’s room is set up like a first grade reading class might be.

Four students are gathered with Goodwin around a small table, all their books open to the same page. “ I will calculate how much money to spend on holiday presents, “ he says, adding a question “What’s the phonetic spelling for that?  Can we say that syllable by syllable?”

The students’ textbooks deal with subjects targeted to teenagers but are written at a lower reading level, with pictures and large font.

Around the rest of the classroom, little “centers” are set up where students are reading silently or working on vocabulary or spelling on computers.
Marquis Green clicks on the WORDS the computer tells him to find… “ It helps, it helps like memorize the words, because they keep doing it over and over until they think you got it right or something. I notice a difference.”

Mia thinks Fenger’s efforts with the junior class are helping her, too. “I think I got a lot better, because I didn’t used to read at my grade level, and now I can.”

Assigning 9th graders to 90 minutes of reading—and cutting English lit to do it— is controversial at a time when new standards are pushing schools to RAMP up the difficulty of texts they give students. Dozier says it’s common sense.
“ To put a child in an English class, to put ‘em in there just because it’s what they’re supposed to take their freshman year—it doesn’t make sense. It makes sense to teach the child HOW to read. So they can actually then— when they go into an English class or a social studies class or science or math or whatever it is—they can access what they’re reading.”

Dozier wants all staff to teach reading.

An econimics teacher kicks off his JUNIOR-level class with vocabulary. His room is wallpapered with words, handwritten in magic marker, each with a definition and example sentence. Entice, precarious, glutton, phobia.
“ My name is Dustin Voss, I teach government and economics…AND READING… at Fenger High School.”

Adolescent literacy experts would like more social studies teachers to introduce themselves that way… and science and math teachers too… There’s a push to get all subject-area teachers in high schools to teach the LITERACY skills needed for their discipline.

But most high schools are ill-equipped to handle reading issues—especially those as severe as
Fenger’s. High school teachers aren’t trained in teaching reading. Materials can be hard to find. Few high schools have literacy experts on staff…Fenger has one. The former French teacher. is getting a master’s in reading, prompted by the need she saw.

Many students have struggled with reading for years—that can affect their view of themselves as students, it can impact their self-esteem.

Take Mia, for instance. She blames herself for her reading struggles. “ Cause it’s just always been my problem. If I didn’t understand, then I think I should have asked. But I didn’t. The teachers don’t know what to tell you if you don’t ask. They can’t read your mind. You got a room full of 30 kids. You can’t get to everybody, so I don’t blame them.”

“ This is indeed a problem nationally. And people need to be aware of this problem.” Andres Henriquez is with the Carnegie Corporation in New York. He worked on a 2009 report that called for high schools to pay much more attention to READING. It said schools in poor urban areas are NOT the only ones with struggling readers.
“ We have seen—unfortunately—that not enough high schools are actually doing anything about their poor readers.”

Henriquez says that’s begun to change over the past several years. Fenger is just one example…

The school has folders full of student test scores that show its efforts are improving students’ reading—sometimes by years. Dozier believes that as kids understand more, they’ll be more likely to stick with school, and dropout numbers will go down.

But the intensive efforts haven’t come soon enough for Mia. She had such a low score on her ACT, her voice dropped as she told me. “ I feel bad ‘cause I wanted to get in a good college.”

She says she’ll take the test again, and hopefully the school’s efforts will help inch her upward.

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