With only 54 percent of Waco Independent School District’s third-graders reading at their grade level or higher, district officials rank improving literacy as the most important academic challenge of the next few years.

As part of the effort, officials will ask parents to help reinforce literacy skills at home during the first in a series of family engagement events starting Tuesday and continuing through May. The district will host the event at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Waco and University high schools. Parents from each school’s feeder elementary schools will be able to get a free meal, participate in various activities and sit with a reading coach to learn how they can help their children at home.

“Literacy continues to be our most serious instructional construct we’re facing,” Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said during a school board meeting Thursday. “When we walk into our classrooms, there’s an achievement gap that is by reading on grade level. … Differentiating instruction to where the achievement gap is closed, for the record, is our biggest problem.”

Reading on a third-grade level is critical because that’s when students make the shift from learning to read, to reading to learn, said Grace Benson, the district’s interim executive director of elementary curriculum. Students start using their reading skills to expand their vocabulary, learn more complex concepts and make personal connections with text, Benson said.

“The research shows most students who struggle to read in third grade are still struggling to read in ninth grade and that they are four times less likely to graduate,” Benson said. “Reading on grade level by the end of third grade is really about being on a path to succeed in high school and after graduation.”

Statewide, 73 percent of third-graders approached grade level or above on state standardized tests, according to the Texas Education Agency’s 2016-2017 Texas Academic Performance Report.

Asked why the district’s literacy rate lags behind, Robin McDurham, assistant superintendent of student services and family engagement, said it is more important to focus on improving.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to engage in who’s responsible for our big challenges, but I think it’s really important to see how we can overcome them with a broader base of support,” McDurham said. “Our parents want the most for their kids. If we can help everyone reinforce that reading in consistent ways, that’ll make a big difference in addressing the challenge.”

The district has set a goal of having 83 percent of third-graders reading at or above their grade level by 2020, as measured by state standardized tests, spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.

The district’s overall goal trickles down to progress measures at lower grade levels.

Now, just 45 percent of Waco ISD kindergarteners and first-graders read at their grade level or higher, and 60 percent of second-graders read at grade level or higher. Officials hope to have 75 percent of kindergarteners, and 80 percent of first- and second-graders reading at grade level by 2020.

Second-graders’ reading level is based on the district’s computerized early reading testing system. It is monitored monthly and helps identify students at risk of failure, according to a presentation made to the school board Thursday.

Waco ISD officials often hear from parents that they don’t know how to help with instruction at home or that they learned how to read a different way than what is being taught today, McDurham said. Next Tuesday’s initiative will start addressing those barriers, and others as the year goes on, by providing parents with information they need.

“What we’re really after this year is looking for meaningful opportunities to engage parents,” McDurham said. “Traditionally, parents take on the role of disciplinarian when we need help with discipline, or fundraisers. … We really want parents to take more of an active role as partners in the learning process.”

Family engagement events will pick back up after the holidays. Subsequent events will focus on giving parents a better understanding of the role standardized tests, college readiness exams, dual credit courses, financial aid and scholarships play in their children’s educational futures, McDurham said.

A full week of meetings in January will be dedicated to educating parents on what their children should know to be college ready at every grade level. There will be a mothers and daughters event, and Nelson will host a Men of Action event at Cameron Park in spring. The series will wrap up with a summer summit at the Mayborn Museum toward the end of the school year.

Several outreach programs are also supporting the district’s literacy goals. The Greater Waco American Federation of Teachers is providing books for first-year teachers, the district’s Adopt-a-School program partners students with volunteer reading buddies for one-on-one support, and Scholastic Inc. is working with student teachers on literacy skills specific to their grade levels, McDurham said.

The district will evaluate the number of students reading at grade level three times this school year to monitor progress, Nelson said.

“It’s a commitment to everything we do with literacy,” DeBeer said. “I think that’s what’s so striking about it. Helping to make sure every Waco ISD student reads on grade level by the time they leave third grade is not a curriculum goal. It’s not a classroom goal in second grade or third grade. It is a district mission.”

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