Reading coach

Saks Elementary reading coach Candace Burns works with 3rd grade students to help them read and understand better. Ms Burns is working with Alejandra Ramirez and Sidney Maddox during class.

“How do you generally pick out a book, when you pick out a book from the library?” Candace Burns asked.

A half-dozen third-graders sat around a table, sweat from P.E. soaking through their best school clothes. Thursday was picture day at Saks Elementary.

“I look at the reading level,” said one student. Another chimed in: “If the reading level says it, and if it has words I can read.”

That wasn’t what Burns was looking for.

“Sometimes when I pick out a book, I look at the cover to see if it’s fun,” she said.

Now the students could see where this was going. One student said he liked “chapter books,” the longer books in the school library. Another said a book needs to be about “real life,” particularly if it’s about sports or animals. Minutes later, Burns had the students paired up, interviewing each other about their reading interests.

Burns is a reading coach in the Alabama Reading Initiative, long regarded as the crown jewel of the state’s education programs. Launched in the late 1990s, ARI was credited with sharp rises in the state’s historically dismal reading scores, and is one of the few Alabama programs praised and emulated in other states.

But ARI is changing, in ways that worry some educators. Faced with budget cuts and stagnant reading scores, ARI’s reading coaches are under pressure to show they can still improve kids’ reading skills. And they’re doing it while operating under a new approach to ARI that was adopted just this year.

“Our orientation on this wasn’t held until a month into the school year,” Burns said. “Some of it’s still new to me.”

A model program

When state school officials first piloted ARI in the 1990s and early 2000s, the plan was to train all teachers as part-time reading instructors, adept at teaching basic reading skills anytime a kid stumbled across a word — not just in reading class.

Another big idea was the “reading coach.” Research showed that teachers didn’t always use the things they learned in summer workshops, but putting a reading teacher in the classroom alongside other teachers could help drive home the idea of reading instruction everywhere.

Advocates of the program fought for years to get it in schools statewide, and they won. By Gov. Bob Riley’s second term, ARI was getting tens of millions of dollars for reading coaches. While Alabama’s reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, still began to climb closer to the national average, and those scores were improving faster than almost anybody’s.

ARI became a model even for one of the  country’s highest-performing states. Ed Moscovitch, the Massachusetts educator Alabama hired to study the program, was so impressed he founded the Bay State Reading Institute, an ARI-like program for rural Massachusetts schools that were missing out on the state’s top-tier reading scores.

Since the 2008 recession, though, Alabama’s showcase program seems to have shown diminishing returns.

“Progress on the NAEP flatlined,” said Caroline Novak, director of the nonprofit A-Plus Education Partnership, one of the biggest advocates for ARI.

This year, lawmakers cut funding for ARI from $48.2 million to $40.7 million. To get the money, schools have to enter into agreements with the state to show how they’ll make more progress.

It’s changed the job for Candace Burns. Last year, she spent 80 percent of her time working with other teachers, in elementary and high school. This year, she spends 80 percent of her time working in third grade only, much of that time working directly with students.

“It’s totally different than what we’ve done before,” she said.

Adjusting the model

Most educators agree that ARI’s less-than-impressive results began with the recession.

“When the program was fully-funded and there was professional development for the whole school, the gains were the greatest,” Novak said.

The post-recession lurch state revenue brought cuts to the program, which topped out at $63 million in 2008. Local school officials say the cuts stretched their reading coaches thin. State-level officials have a slightly different take, saying local schools may have strayed from ARI’s original goals by moving reading coaches to higher grades.

“We moved our reading coaches to a higher grade level, and they were making fantastic gains,” said Joe Dyar, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools. Calhoun County was the first system to use new state school flexibility rules to opt out of some state regulations; the reading coach shift was part of the change.

State school board member Cynthia McCarty said board members and lawmakers were growing increasingly skeptical of how ARI money was being used in districts, post-recession.

“We’re just trying to figure out what went wrong,” McCarty said of the cuts and the new focus on third-graders. “The trajectory we were on is no longer there.”

In past years, state school officials said the program was always meant to be scaled down, as the lessons of reading coaches became part of every school’s culture. Even now, coaches like Candace Burns say their goal is to work themselves out of a job.

It doesn’t really work that way, said Holly Box, an early ARI coach who is now Calhoun County’s director of curriculum.

“Your faculty’s changing all the time,” Box said. “Teachers retire and people move. There are always new teachers who need professional development.”

The timing of the changes to ARI has also rubbed some educators the wrong way. Many school systems had already made their staffing decisions when the state budget passed. Systems such as Anniston City Schools lost state funding for middle and  high school reading coaches and had to scramble for local money in an attempt to keep them.

Burns, the Saks reading coach, says many of the core ideas of ARI are still present in the program. She’s still urging students to use context to make out words they don’t know. She’s still trying to push students toward deeper thinking about what they read. But now she’s teaching students directly, and spending less time showing other teachers how to do what she does.

“We’ve kind of taken the long way around to the place we came from,” she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.