Making reading a kindergarten priority

MPS superintendent sets a kindergarten literacy goal

WINDOM — A spontaneous rendition of “Feliz Navidad” arose from the youngsters sitting cross-legged in a circle in a Windom Spanish Dual Immersion School.

It was the last school day before their two-week winter break, and Windom Teacher Advancement Program mentor Jim Clark was playing Santa Claus for the morning, delivering two picture books to each of Windom’s kindergarteners, one in Spanish and one in English. They were among 7,000 books donated to the Minneapolis Public Schools by Target Corporation — two for every district kindergartener.

“We had our winter concert yesterday, so some of them are still singing the songs,” explained Principal Lucilla Yira, as students dug into book bags printed with Target’s bull’s-eye logo. Turning to Clark, Yira added: “It’s great to see them excited over books, isn’t it?” 

District leaders are hoping that kind of excitement will translate to academic success in kindergarten and beyond. Prior to the start of the school year, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson set the goal of getting all district kindergarteners reading at a basic level by winter break.

“That’s a huge commitment, but it’s one that I think we can do,” Johnson said in an interview with the Southwest Journal prior to the start of the school year, describing a cornerstone of the academic plan for her first year in office.

“Starting early, getting students on track to excelling at a high level, is really critical,” she continued in that August interview. “The longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes and the more resources it actually requires to do that.”

Falling behind in reading skills can harm a student’s “self-confidence, motivation and overall school performance,” the district notes in its academic achievement agenda. Middle and high school students who have not yet picked up the skills needed to decipher complex texts won’t be ready when they encounter them in school, work or college.

As a district, Minneapolis has some work to do. On the latest round of state-mandated standardized tests, only 52 percent of Minneapolis Public Schools students scored proficient in reading at their grade levels, compared to 72 percent of students statewide.

Building basic skills

Earlier in the day, Yira was in one of Windom’s kindergarten classrooms, watching over the shoulder of a girl slowly and deliberately sounding out the words in a Spanish-language picture book.

“First of all, I know that she knows what good readers do because she’s reading from left to right,” Yira said. “She’s looking at the words. She’s using her finger to point to the word she’s reading at the time. She’s phonetically sounding out each and every sound to then read.”

Kindergarteners at Windom spend two hours each day working on reading and writing skills, although that time may also incorporate other subjects like social studies or science. That’s twice as much time spent on literacy than in other schools where Yira has worked, she said.

The progress of kindergarteners is monitored through regular assessments. During the school day, young readers are grouped by ability and read on their own or with a teacher who targets instruction to areas where each student needs improvement, such as vocabulary or comprehension, Yira said.

Windom’s classrooms are stocked with books separated into color-coded bins, each bin corresponding to different levels of reading ability. Yira invested $36,000 of her budget in Spanish-language books, which students regularly take home to read on their own or with parents.

Parents play a key role in Windom’s drive to meet the Superintendent Johnson’s kindergarten reading goal. They are asked to spend at least 15 minutes each night reading with their children, and must provide a record to their students’ classroom teachers.

Seeing results

Kindergarten teacher Sandra Suarez said this year’s intense focus on reading seemed to be having an effect. Out of a class of 26 students, 16 to 18 were at a “pre-reading level” at the start of the year, Suarez said, meaning they were “reading basically nothing — recognizing that there are letters, but they don’t know the sounds.

“The rest of the students were between reading some words already and reading and recognizing some sounds,” she said.

With half of the school year over, Suarez said most of her students had attained level B — the superintendent’s mid-year goal — meaning they were on-track to reach level C by the spring. Kindergarteners reading at a level C are considered ready for first grade.

“Last year they started with some of this, and I have heard that this year first graders are reading much better than in previous years,” Suarez said.

At home

Parents like Maria del Carmen Benitez Nava are crucial to the success of the district’s kindergarten literacy campaign. Benitez Nava reads at least 20 minutes, twice a day, every day, with her twin sons Jesus and Josue Amigón Benitez.

“Ever since they started school, with practice, with having to read more, they’ve been more interested in asking, ‘How do you say this again?’ or ‘What does this say here?’,” Benitez Nava, speaking through district interpreter, said.

She said Jesus and Josue apply their new literacy skills to just about everything — even the items set out for breakfast.

“They will read the calories and the carbs (on a nutrition label), or they will point out the words they can read and say, ‘Look, I can read this, mom,’” Benitez Nava said.

Those are words a parent — and a first-year superintendent — loves to hear.