This is the second in a sporadic series.
I met Kia last September. She had done poorly on last year’s NWEA MAP testing and had been identified, along with seven others from among our incoming freshman class, as being most in need of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention, the program I had been trained in last summer. (I described what our classroom’s version of AARI looks like in this post.)
I started pulling these eight into my classroom, one by one, to evaluate them by way of the QRI — The Qualitative Reading Inventory. This assessment requires students to first read lists of words sorted by grade level to determine their basic skills of decoding and identifying sight words — the ability to get words off the page. Some of my students read these lists fairly independently up to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade level; a few could barely make it through a second grade list. Once I got a glimpse at their ability to read, I had them read grade-level passages and answer comprehension questions — some that were easy to identify from the text, others that required inference. The majority of the eight freshmen I tested demonstrated the ability to read and comprehend at levels between the third and fifth grade; three were frustrated at first grade level or below.
How do students get to their freshmen year reading only at the first through fifth grade level? I suspect two reasons.
First, my students have grown up in Detroit Public Schools (and the charter schools, like mine, within that district) where they have received inconsistent instruction for a variety of reasons such as low attendance of both students and staff, insufficient funding and resources, and multiple out-of-school factors that impact learning such as housing and food insecurity, domestic disruption, trauma, and other realities that have grown out of centuries of systemic racism.
Second, even in the best of schools in the wealthiest of communities, the data shows COVID’s impact on learning over the last two years. Even students who had mostly face-to-face instruction over the two years of the pandemic have scored lower on standardized tests than expected. Students like mine, who had little to no schooling in the Spring of 2020 due to lack of technology and Internet connectivity, followed by one year of virtual instruction where they had to attempt to log in and focus despite many barriers including poor Internet, other siblings in the home (maybe even in the same room), family responsibilities, and the like, followed by another year of continuous transition between in-person and virtual instruction due to insufficient staffing, high COVID rates, and building issues, have been impacted much more dramatically. And, in addition to not being in school, most of my students report that they read very little or not at all between March 2020 and September 2022. That’s thirty months away from reading
It’s no wonder that when it was Kia’s turn to come into my room, she was a little nervous. She giggled a lot and apologized for missing words but did her best. I found her to be comfortable reading at the third grade level; the fourth grade passage was frustrating.
She has been in my room since September. I should say, she has sometimes been in my room since September. She’s been absent thirty-three times. And, on about a half-dozen occasions when she’s been in my class, she has fallen asleep to the degree that I have been unable to wake her. When she is present and awake, she is either fully engaged and a star participant or is having an emotional meltdown in response to a teasing comment from one of the boys in the class. She has demonstrated very little consistency, staying power, or resiliency.
So, when I pulled her out of class to retest her this past Tuesday, the first day back in the building after a two-week break, I did not have high expectations. I had already tested most of the others who had improved their reading scores by 1-3 grade levels in just one semester! I was hopeful, despite her poor attendance, that she would demonstrate the same growth.
We found a quiet corner of the building, and I asked, “Are you ready for this?”
“I’m nervous,” she replied.
“You’re going to do fine,” I said. “In fact, you’ve been telling me all semester that you don’t need this class. Here is your chance to prove it to me!”
I started her with a fifth grade passage, assuming two years’ worth of growth, and she aced it. We moved to the sixth grade passage. She missed a couple comprehension questions, but still fell in the ‘instructional’ range, so we moved on to the next passage which is labelled “upper middle school”. Again, she missed only a couple questions on a dense passage about the life cycle of stars, so we moved to a high school level passage. The text was two single-spaced pages with illustrations describing the functions of DNA and RNA. It took her a while to respond to the questions, as she had permission, according to QRI instructions, to go back to the text and find the answers, but she found them — enough to fall in the “instructional” range once again.
As I watched her read and then search for answers — her determination to prove that she could do this — I was getting choked up. The others had tried hard, too, but she was clearly on a different level.
When she finished, I said, “Kia, how do you feel?”
“I feel good!”
“Do you know what level you started at in September?”
“You were comfortable at third grade level. Fourth grade level was frustrating.”
“Oh my God!” she said, covering her face in embarrassment.
“Be kind to yourself!” I explained. “We were just coming back after COVID! It was a very difficult time! How much did you read during COVID?”
“Nothing,” she said with a sheepish grin on her face.
“Right! Do you know you just read a complex biology text at the high school level?” I could barely get the words out because my throat was tightening.
“You understood all that stuff about cells and DNA and replication! Everybody can’t do that!”
She looked at me, locking eyes.
“Kia, you could be a nurse!”
“That’s what I want to be!” she smiled broadly.
“You can! You are very bright!”
She started crying, too. We hugged. I passed her a tissue, then I pulled myself together.
“Listen, Kia, I’m gonna be real with you. You have the stuff it takes to be a nurse, but you aren’t going to get there unless something changes. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I gotta come to school.”
“Yes, you’ve got to come to school. If you want to get into a nursing program, you need As and Bs from now on, and you have the ability to do that.”
We talked a little bit longer about how I was going to be after her, checking in on her, even after she has left my class when the semester ends in two weeks. Then we walked through the halls telling administrators and teachers about what she had accomplished — we needed to celebrate.
Everyone applauded her, hugged her, congratulated her — she was beaming.
The next day Kia showed up in my room before school asking to borrow a laptop. She’d lost her charger and hers was dead — had been dead for weeks. I loaned her my laptop, and said, “Here’s a charger. You can keep it.”
“Thank you! Now I can get caught up at home!”
She came to my class later that day, sat up straight, answered questions, and smiled broadly.
She dropped by my room the next day to say, “I’m making up all my missing work, Mrs. Rathje, and I’m staying awake in all my classes.”
“Amazing, Kia! Keep going!”
Do I think that Kia’s ability to read improved nine — 9! — grade levels in one semester? No. However, I think that some basic skills that had gone dormant during COVID were re-engaged. I believe Kia’s brain, like many others I see every day, had learned to “sleep” during the trauma and disruption of COVID, and needed to be woken up.
AARI for an hour a day five days a week, despite her absences, was enough to wake her up, and realizing her potential was the cup of coffee that put her in motion.
I tested Kia on Tuesday, and she was still going strong on Friday. I suspect her momentum will fluctuate. She’ll have hard days, she’ll get discouraged, and she’ll be tempted to go back to sleep, if just to get some relief.
She’s gonna need all kinds of encouragement to build the stamina she’ll need to make it all the way to a nursing degree, because all of the obstacles didn’t magically go away. She’s still going to have to get herself up every morning. She’s still going to have to show up. She’s going to have to learn to tune out the voices of adolescent boys who like to get a reaction out of her. She’s going to have to overcome a lot more than what I see on the surface — whatever is going on at home that allowed her to miss thirty-three days of school, whatever reason there is for the fact that she needs glasses and hasn’t had then for the entire first semester, whatever has happened in her life that makes her so tender to break down so easily from everyday jabs of a few adolescent boys.
She’ll leave my class at the end of this semester, but our school is small, and I will make an effort to see her most days — to engage with her and to wave the cup of coffee under her nose, to remind her of the future that is possible for her.
But mostly it’s going to be up to her to do the next hard thing day after day after day. It’s gonna get tiring. And lonely. And the odds are against her.
But with some determination and a few miracles, she just might make it.
May God make her path straight and may He raise up a great cloud of witnesses to cheer her on her way.
I’m happy to be one among the crowd shouting “Keep going! You’re almost there!”
*Name changed for confidentiality.