Ann Arbor Public Schools preparing to meet requirements of state’s 3rd grade reading law

State Representative Adam Zemke reading to a classroom at Pittsfield Elementary
State Representative Adam Zemke was a guest reader at many AAPS schools during March is Reading Month. Here he reads to students at Pittsfield Elementary Photo by Pittsfield Elementary Principal Carol Shakarian

By Andrew Cluley AAPS Communications Director

Ann Arbor Public Schools will be leveraging Michigan’s new third grade reading law to take what the district already does and make it even better in regards to ensuring elementary students are reading at grade level or above. District officials shared the concepts of how AAPS will meet the new requirements at this week’s Board of Education Study Session, but many of the specifics still need to be worked out with principals, teachers, families and others.

While there will be changes, Superintendent Jeanice Swift shared this won’t include forced retention of students that aren’t reading at a third grade level at the end of third grade. “What we would do then is continue to provide supports beyond the third grade year, which as you can see in many other states is satisfactory so we will not get into retention, promotion discussion,” Swift says. “We just continue to support the students as they move up.”

One of the initial changes that will be taking place in kindergarten through third grade classrooms will be a reading screening within the first 30 days of the school year, then two more evaluations each year. Swift compares this screening to students getting their vision checked when school begins and believes it will help ensure students get additional support more quickly. “We do not wait for students to fail in this model. Once we see the red flag we will attend to it,” she says.

The form of intervention students receive when red flags are first noticed will be more targeted than the current model, with individual plans required for all students that need additional support. The law requires a focus on five key components to reading; comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness, and phonics.

In addition to work in the classroom, the new law calls for read at home plans to be provided to parents of students that are challenged in one or more area. Assistant Superintendent Instruction and Support Services Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley is excited about working closely with families to boost student reading ability. “We are absolutely dedicated and frankly looking forward to with enthusiasm working with our parents as partners,” she says. “Developing home literacy plans, providing parent workshops, and supporting parents in their good work as a critical component and teacher in making sure that our students are on track and learning as we would want them to learn.”

While Ann Arbor elementary schools will comply with the 3rd Grade Reading law, School Board Trustees and AAPS administrators say lawmakers have presented challenges to implementing the new rules. This includes making the initial shift effective K-3 immediately instead of phasing it in as other states have done.

Probably the largest challenge though, is the need for additional staff to be plugged in to offer the targeted instruction and the training that is needed for all teachers. School Board President Christine Stead wants to make sure the district keeps close watch on the costs related to this program. “I would like to personally take on the task of writing a case study to our state about what is the total cost of a bill that they pass,” Stead says. “I do believe there is a constitutional component about us not being liable for unfunded mandates and I think this is one of them, but I’d just like to understand the magnitude of the dollars we’re talking about.”

In addition to the challenges of implementation, Trustee Harmony Mitchell has deep concerns about the motives of lawmakers in passing the legislation as written. “This was intentional as an attack on public education,” Mitchell says. “How public education it just doesn’t work, this is the narrative that is being pursued with surgical efforts, even to the point where you now have mandates with no funding.”

While school board members and others expressed their concerns about the new law, Trustee Jessica Kelly says the concept of ensuring all students can read is at the core of what Ann Arbor Public Schools does. “I appreciate that we’re looking for additional funding sources, but I would like to remind the board that literacy, teaching kids to read is literally our mandate,” Kelly says.

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