Math and Reading Remediation Coming to Richmond Public Schools

by James C. Sherlock

I spent the past couple of days writing about thousands of human tragedies playing out in Richmond Pubic Schools (RPS), their complexity and the large bureaucracy responsible for fixing it.  

Half of the Black kids in fourth grade in RPS schools could not read in 2018-19.  Nine year olds. Half could not multiply. Discipline problems were severe. Ten percent of black RPS middle schoolers who started school in the fall of 2018 were arrested for in-school violations of the law. Large numbers of kids, 13% on the average day, were absent. Now two school years interrupted by COVID.

Someone has to start somewhere. RPS is starting with a program to mitigate deficient student reading and math skills.

In Virginia, as in all states, the syllabus calls for children to learn to read in K-3 and then read to learn for the rest of their lives.  

In math, that same syllabus requires them to learn to multiply by the end of the third grade. Multiplication is fundamental to the math syllabus for the rest of their time in school.

I simply cannot imagine how illiterate and innumerate children experience school. Now ask yourselves why are they truant. Why they get into trouble in school? Why they drop out?

The 4th graders from 2018-2019 will be entering 7th grade in the fall after two years of COVID-interrupted instruction. How is that going to work out for them?

I have been communicating personally for about six months with Jason Kamras, RPS Superintendent. The subjects have been remediation of COVID learning losses and literacy and math intervention. We discussed the possibility of year-round school and the outstanding progress shown by Mississippi schools in mitigation of historic reading shortfalls among their schoolchildren.

He is committed to both paths.

The math and reading intervention programs are underway. He introduced me to a very impressive woman, Autumn Nabors, Ed.D, his Director of Curriculum and Instruction. I interviewed her for this column.

RPS is funding administrators and teachers to get additional (online) credentials as Reading Specialists from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia. There will be two positions eventually filled at each elementary and middle school:  a Literacy Coach and a Reading Interventionist. 

The Literacy Coach will work with the teachers to support their classroom skills,  The Reading Interventionist will work with small groups of students to teach them to read at grade level. This program will extend from kindergarten through middle school.

To quote Ms. Nabors:

“We are developing a PreK-12 Literacy Plan to create a vibrant culture of literacy that cultivates a joy for reading, writing, and learning and inspires parents and teachers to contribute to and participate in the overall success of our students. The mission will for all RPS students to be reading on grade-level in 3rd grade and all RPS graduates to have the reading, writing, and communication skills to be college, civic, and career-ready.”

VCU had an RPS cohort that just finished for the Reading Specialist degree and UVA has a cohort that will finish next summer and we are starting another cohort this fall. The Reading Specialist degree will be a requirement for all of our Literacy Coaches and it is preferred with our Reading Interventionists.

The new math Coach and Interventionist programs are similar. Each elementary and middle school will have one of each for math and one each for literacy.

The qualifications for the jobs are tough. From a current RPS job advertisement:

“POSITION TITLE: Academic Interventionist – Elementary QUALIFICATIONS: Must have a postgraduate professional license with a degree in elementary education or other content specific area (i.e. reading or mathematics) and a minimum of three years successful teaching experience. Reading or mathematics specialist licensure or equivalent coursework and bilingual skills to include Spanish are preferred.”

Now this program, like every other in RPS, must convince the rest of the bureaucracy, the principals, the parents and the kids that it is worth doing. The parents will have to make sure their kids show up, behave themselves and do the work.

If the programs make converts, the in school headwinds are a hurricane. The current levels of academic achievement for thousands of RPS kids are far below grade level. Discipline is a huge problem and truancy an epidemic.

But we cannot but wish Ms. Nabors and her intervention programs success. They are part of the solution if supported. If those programs save even a couple of hundred kids a year from a desolate future they are worth every penny.

RPS is lucky to have Ms. Nabors and administrators like her who are, indeed, starting somewhere.  

Now for the discipline and truancy problems.