A New School Success Story

Student Profile: One of the New School program’s success stories has been a young woman (“J.”) with extremely low skills in all areas of reading.

J. couldn’t read and didn’t read. Staff discovered that her heroine was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and helped her find Web pages about her idol and information about the actress who played her. The teacher helped J. develop a number of strategies, such as sounding the names out slowly, for spelling the names of actors and actresses she wanted to “Google.” J. took a stab at spelling, Google did the rest, and she started to read bits and pieces of information on-line. Staff encouraged her to try some of the easier novels during silent reading, and after some initial time of turning the pages without much understanding, J. became “hooked on books.”

J. lives with her mother, stepfather, and two younger brothers. During her first year in the program and for a large part of the second year (she repeated the Year 1 program because her reading skills were so low) there were also other family members including cousins living as a tight knit group who tried to stay apart from the world outside. All of the teenagers were severely limited in their interaction with the outside world. J. and the other children were not allowed to socialize outside the home, and the mother would accompany J. (who was sixteen) everywhere including to school and back. The mother reported that J.’s teachers had told her from elementary school on that J. had reading problems but in her words “they didn’t have any programs for her, because of all the cuts and no one could help her.”

J.’s reading ability upon entry into the program was very weak. Her score on the Woodcock Johnson Reading Assessment was a grade equivalency score of grade 2.0 and her passage comprehension was grade 2.5. Her decoding and word recognition skills were also a low 2.2. In addition, her knowledge of the world (a key component of reading comprehension) was quite limited since the world of ideas in which she lived was so small. Her math skills were very weak as well. She did not have much of a numbers sense and had very little grasp of basic math facts. At sixteen years of age, she was unable to add or subtract whole numbers.

J. made little discernable progress in her reading during the first year. Her overall score at the end of the year was still a disappointing grade 2.5 and her passage comprehension had risen only slightly to grade 2.7 from grade 2.5, although her engagement with books had increased significantly and she was excited about being able to read. Staff agreed that J. would benefit from a second year at the first level; J. repeated Year 1 and was quite happy to do so. The results of her efforts in the second year were very encouraging. Although her overall reading score did not increase significantly (she scored grade 2.9 at the end of this year, largely because her decoding skills did not improve). However, she made impressive gains in her passage comprehension: She scored grade 4.7 and improved her math skills to a level where she could handle fractions.

Raising a student’s reading to a grade level equivalent of only 4.7 may not count as “success” to some. But the New School offered J. an opportunity to grow and develop strategies that made her a capable reader and a successful student. She read several books during the second year, took the initiative to get her own library card, and carefully selected three books to take along and read on her long bus trip to visit her grandmother in Alberta during the summer. J. also engaged in the academic reading that was part of the class, taking along several pages of the chapter on “Evolution” so she could explain “what really happened” to her grandmother who is very religious. In essence J. joined what Frank Smith has called “the reading club,” the club of those who read books, love them and are able to talk about them in meaningful ways.

J. read “Holes” (a book on many reading lists for middle schools) and explained the difference between the book and the movie to her brother (a good measure of understanding). She was an active member of her reading circle who came prepared to discuss characters, plots and key events, and was able to make connections to events in her own life. Although her skills remained relatively low, she had learned to use compensatory strategies that allowed her to understand much of what she was reading.

As both her confidence and her competence improved, she developed a set of skills and abilities that will help her be successful in different kinds of environment, including education, training, and work. By staying with the school, she was able to transition to a vocational training co-op.

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