It’s All About Reading at ‘Third Grade Academy’

August 15, 2011

(Richmond, Ind.) – When their city got the nickname “dropout factory” a few years back, retired businessmen Vic Jose and Rick Ahaus decided to do something about it. Four years later, the Third Grade Academy — an intensive summer program for struggling readers — is nudging ISTEP scores higher. It’s also inspired the National Civic League to use its All-America City Awards to spotlight community reading programs nationwide.

The academy, funded half by private donations and half by Richmond Community Schools, targets third graders who fail the language arts portion of the ISTEP test. In years past, that’s been as many as 30 to 40 percent. Cost per student is $1,500.

Students are referred by teachers and assigned to different sites around the city, from museums to libraries to a wellness center. The organizers purposefully didn’t locate in schools because they wanted to create a learning environment that felt different from the regular classroom, a place too many youngsters associated with failure.

Although the goal of getting all participants to grade level has yet to be achieved, progress has been consistent and promising.

For the academy that concluded on Aug. 6, for example, 90 percent of students achieved 12 weeks of progress over a four-week period. As one specific, they gained an average of 1.47 reading levels on the commonly used Fountas & Pinnell assessment.

Also encouraging, parents and students surveyed before and after the program reported a shift in attitudes toward reading.  Before the academy, only 25 percent of the children said they liked to read a lot; after the academy 46 percent said so.

Parent buy-in is important because the students must show up to glean the benefits. By the end of the last school year, teachers had referred 166 students, and 119 enrolled. Of those, 97 attended with 93 percent regularity.

It’s a daunting commitment when friends are enjoying the last weeks of summer. The academy day consists of five hours of direct and explicit instruction, plus guided reading and writing time. The classes are capped at 10 students, directed by a specially trained teacher and an assistant. The curriculum is geared to skills tested on ISTEP.

It’s working. The average Third Grade Academy student in 2009 gained 23.65 pints on the 2010 ISTEP while the average student who did not attend the academy lost 4.73 points on the same test. Overall, Richmond’s language arts scores have been rising since the program began in 2008 and at a rate higher than the statewide average.

The Third Grade Academy is a powerful model for other communities to consider as the state Department of Education seeks to discourage “social” promotion of third graders to fourth grade.

This stage is especially critical because it’s when students shift from learning to reading then to reading to learn. Yet at ISTEP scores demonstrate, students with poor reading skills in Grade 3 don’t catch up without intervention. As text becomes more sophisticated, scores drop. Typically ISTEP reading pass rates fall 10 points or more from Grade 8 to Grade 3.

The grass-roots nature of the Third Grade Academy, which at first was funded entirely by private donations, so impressed the National Civic League that it gave Richmond its All-America City award in 2009. Deviating from its normal practice of recognizing communities with generic “can-do spirit,” the league will place a special emphasis in 2012 and 2015 on places that have developed “the most comprehensive, realistic and sustainable plans to increase grade-level reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.”

The success has emboldened Jose and Ahaus to consider expansion. “We’re trying to think whether we have the capacity to move into a bigger role,” Jose says. In particular, he’s interested in providing programs in the birth to 5-year-old category (when reading readiness skills are developed).

Nothing matters more in the world of education reform. As a national expert, Doug Lemov, notes: “Reading is the skill; teaching students to unlock the full meaning of the texts they read is the single most powerful outcome a teacher can foster.”

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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