When 9-year-old Torian Franks sees Lisa Brizendine walking toward Nathaniel Alexander Elementary School, her smile lights the room.
For most of the week, Brizendine works in a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrative office, figuring out how to help teachers with math lessons. For an hour on Wednesday mornings, she’s the person who reads with Torian, explaining what anchovies on a pizza are or showing her what a peacock looks like.
The sessions are clearly a treat for both of them, but it’s fun with a purpose. Superintendent Ann Clark believes a simple formula – one adult, one child, one hour a week – can help set thousands of children on track for school success.
Her North Star reading program, which started this school year, pegs reading as the key to a lifetime of learning. The goal is not just teaching kids to sound out words but cultivating the kind of reading that unlocks the secrets of printed text and sparks the imagination. That type of success may be hard to quantify, but this being public education, there are tests, numbers and labels.
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North Carolina can make reading scary for a child.
Lauren Fowler, principal of Nathaniel Alexander Elementary
Last year 40 percent of North Carolina and CMS third-graders failed the state’s reading test. At Nathaniel Alexander 46 percent came up short.
So there’s pressure on Torian and 12,245 fellow CMS third-graders, who will take the four-hour reading exam Wednesday. Low scores bring the prospect of students being held back and schools being issued failing grades.
“North Carolina can make reading scary for a child,” says Nathaniel Alexander Principal Lauren Fowler.
Torian says she’s eager to take the test. That confidence, says Fowler, is half the battle.
Last year reading was a struggle for her. Tests at the start of third grade indicated Torian could use extra help.
So Torian became part of the North Star program, which matched about 1,800 adult volunteers with roughly 2,000 struggling readers and at-risk high school seniors.
1,007 CMS employees volunteered with North Star
807 community members volunteered
2,019 students were matched with mentors
Clark encouraged CMS employees to sign up – especially those working in offices, who don’t see the children they’re working for every day. Brizendine, a former first-grade teacher, has been in central offices for five years.
The first thing she noticed when she met Torian was the girl’s welcoming smile. Torian introduced Brizendine to Geronimo Stilton, a mouse adventurer who stars in a series of children’s novels.
Recruiting “reading buddies” is nothing new for CMS. But in the past it was up to schools and teachers to figure out how to use those volunteers.
North Star built on that by providing training and weekly lesson plans for all volunteers, allowing them to use the students’ choice of books to develop skills. For instance, Brizendine helped Torian figure out what the author’s purpose was, or coached her on ways to figure out the meaning of a new word. When Torian read about a peacock but had never seen one, Brizendine found a picture.
When the two started “The King’s Equal,” a novel about a pompous prince who learns humility in his quest for a bride, Brizendine got so engrossed that she begged Torian to wait until the next week’s session to finish.
“It was just such a bright spot of my week,” Brizendine said. “I think it’s made me grow as a person and a professional development specialist.”
It takes a team
Torian’s mom, Jay Franks, has seen her daughter change.
Torian is the fourth of five children, with two parents who value education but work full time. Franks, who works at Iverify security company, felt like an enforcer when she insisted her daughter read 30 minutes a day. Even when they read together, Torian would watch the clock and ask if her time was up yet.
Her mom worried about this year, when the pressure of standardized testing would become part of the picture. “She’s very hard on herself at times,” Franks says.
But she has watched her daughter bloom, eagerly taking on harder books and describing what she read with Miss Lisa. Now Torian can recount the plot of “The King’s Equal” in detail and talk about how “Grace Becomes President” relates to classroom lessons about voting. She loves reading to her 2-year-old sister and showing her parents her weekly progress reports.
“She’s making me proud,” Franks said.
Of course, volunteers aren’t working alone to help students read. Torian’s teacher, Amanda Nickens, tracks all her students’ progress with Reading 3D, which tests students’ comprehension and word recognition and assigns them levels from A to Z. Books in classrooms and the school media center are labeled by level, and each student keeps a personal “book bin” stocked.
At the start of the year Torian was on level L. Now she’s at P, right on track for a third-grader going into year-end exams.
Cheesy jokes and testing
When asked what she has learned, Torian replies with confidence: “Don’t go telling a cheesy joke.”
Wait ... what?
Turns out that’s a sentence the Nathaniel Alexander teachers created to help their kids remember strategies for reading and taking tests. D is for directions, which need to be read carefully. G is genre. T is title, which you can look at and make predictions about the story. A is the author’s purpose. C is “chunking,” or breaking long text into manageable segments. And J is jotting notes to help with comprehension.
Not that many years ago, CMS leaders thought the key to reading was Open Court, a phonics-based curriculum that required teachers to follow scripted lessons. Now the district uses a balanced literacy approach, which maintains the phonics lessons but gives teachers more freedom – and more responsibility to help each child find books they love.
“It’s more work, but it’s more intentional,” Nickens says. And support from volunteer mentors helps. At Nathaniel Alexander, they come not just from CMS but from UNC Charlotte and Elevation Church.
Third grade is the first time students take North Carolina reading and math exams. Nickens has been working with her kids to build up stamina. They’re allowed four hours to work through the reading test.
Exams are scored on a five-point scale. Three or higher is considered passing. Torian got a four on a practice exam, and she wants a four or five on the real test.
Her mom would like that, too. But she doesn’t need a state test to rate her daughter’s progress. On Mother’s Day, she got Torian a puppy to reward her.
“She’s had a lot of challenges this year,” Franks says. “It was well deserved.”
The puppy’s name: Blessed.
Read to students
Superintendent Ann Clark’s plan is for volunteers to stick with their students as they advance a grade, which means CMS will need new mentors for next year’s third-graders. Volunteers need to register with the district and clear a background screening. To sign up go to www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmsdepartments/cpfe/volunteers or contact volunteer coordinator Ana Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org, 980-343-0474.