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Pilot summer reading program in Iowa offers 75 hours of help

Summer program for third-graders required by law in 2017

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A summer pilot program to help at least 1,800 pupils across 40 Iowa school districts read better still is under development as its launch approaches.

The $1.9 million project, which is almost entirely paid for with private donations, was announced Monday by Gov. Terry Branstad as a way to prepare for summer 2017 when state law will require third-graders who are not proficient in reading to undergo a summer program or repeat the third grade.

The pilot program’s specifics — including the curriculum it will use to try to address a persistent education problem — remain to be fleshed out. But Deborah Reed, director of the University of Iowa’s Reading Research Center, said participating school districts will have flexibility in crafting a reading course that best fits their needs, resources and demographics.

“We are planning the professional development for teachers at this time. ... Every school is very different and they’re at very different stages of preparing these summer programs,” Reed said.

The pilot program will help the research center create the framework for a statewide summer reading course, which is slated for implementation next year.

“That’s what we’re doing this summer in terms of figuring all of this out so that next year when schools don’t have a choice about participating ... then we want it to be working as smoothly, efficiently and effectively as possible,” Reed said. “We don’t want schools next summer to be saying, ‘Gosh, how should we do this?’ ”

Funding for the full program in 2017 has not yet been identified, but the State Department of Education has requested $9 million.

School districts participating in the pilot project will have to have at least 15 students to constitute a group, meaning that rural districts might need to pair up to have enough students for a group. Larger districts will have multiple groups.

The pilot program will include 75 hours of reading instruction and require both a computer- and print-based curriculum as well as a third program created by the school district.

Specific curriculum has not been created, but Iowa area education agencies will be working with their districts to craft programming that meets the legislative mandate and create a workbook to help local districts design and implement a summer literacy program.

“We’re making progress at both the AEA and district, but there remains much more work to be done,” said Renee Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids, said in an email. “Right now, many of our districts are still in the initial planning steps related to their programs.”

Under state law, beginning in spring 2017, any child who doesn’t pass certain reading benchmarks will have to attend a 70-hour summer reading program or be required to repeat the third grade.

The pilot program does not include any required achievement benchmarks for students to advance.

The new program follows last year’s release of State Department of Education data that found about 8,000 public school third-graders — nearly one in four — did not read proficiently on the Iowa Assessments in either 2014 or 2015.

Reed acknowledged a summer program will not by itself address struggling reading skills, but should supplement coursework.

“We do not think a summer program is going to fix all ills. This is one additional piece of the greater picture of services that should be provided to students,” Reed said. “I don’t think anyone assumes there is any sort of magic wand in the summer program that will cure it all.”

Officials with the Cedar Rapids and Marion Independent School districts would not comment on what the pilot summer reading program they have agreed to participate in might look like, but did express interest in launching their own programming.

“We’re really excited to be part of the pilot program, giving us the opportunity to influence and inform high-quality, reading intervention programming in our school district and throughout the state of Iowa,” Cedar Rapids Deputy Superintendent Mary Ellen Maske said in an email.

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