Chattanooga revamps reading program at recreational centers

By Joy Lukachick Smith, Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 13th, 2017

A Chattanooga-funded reading initiative is undergoing changes in an effort to align with the Hamilton County school system.

The city’s literacy program is scaling back its use of Lexia Reading Core5, offering the online program only to a limited number of students at the city’s recreational centers for another year, officials said. The program, which came under fire in 2015, has seen a dip in student involvement in the last two years.

Simultaneously, the city is expanding its use of Hamilton County Schools programs — Reading Eggs and Reading Plus — to most students who visit the centers after school and already have user accounts with the school system.

Officials said the changes were the result of months of meetings with school officials and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, which pumps funding into both the city’s and county school system’s literacy programs.

“It’s because we come together around the table that we’re getting much greater alignment,” said Jill Levine, chief academic officer for Hamilton County Schools. “You can’t just get one computer program that will fix everything, but when you get alignment and everybody’s working in the same direction, that’s when kids start to move.”

Two years ago, Hamilton County Schools did not support the city’s purchase of Lexia, saying the program didn’t match the school system’s reading curriculum in the classrooms.

At the time, the city was planning to expand Lexia even as three City Council members began to question the program ahead of voting on the 2016 city budget. Also a Times Free Press analysis of Lexia for the 2014-2015 school year found the program wasn’t producing the same results touted by City Hall.

While the mayor’s office claimed 50 percent of the Chattanooga children active in Lexia were reading at grade level, the data showed many students had done only minimal work on grade level and were nowhere near the 80 to 100 percent completion mark that indicates a child is ready for the next grade. Mayor Andy Berke defended the program, saying the city chose to focus on other numbers that showed where the students had made small strides.

In August, officials from city and county school governments and the United Way began to discuss ways to create a comprehensive program that mirrored what students were using in school.

United Way President and CEO Lesley Scearce said the agencies agreed on four non-negotiable requirements for the literacy program. The goals needed to ensure that kids weren’t falling through the gap, she said, especially those who were most vulnerable and hardest to reach. The strategy needed to coordinate with Hamilton County Schools, it needed to have clear-cut results, and it needed to be efficient in its funding, she said.

The United Way used the requirements to decide whether to continue to fund Lexia, Scearce said, as most of the licenses to use the program were set to expire in January. The United Way decided to split the $9,600 cost with the city to purchase 1,200 licenses for one more year, targeting students who are multiple grade levels behind.

In a year, city officials said they will decide whether to fund Lexia for another year or to stop using the program altogether.

The city doesn’t plan to purchase the two programs Hamilton County students use; instead, officials said the program is available for students remotely when they use the computers at the city’s Youth and Family Development centers after school.

After the school system decided not to use Lexia, the city began to see fewer students using it beginning in April 2015. The numbers have fallen from a peak of nearly 4,000 students to an average of about 1,300 a month.

Jason McKinney, deputy administrator of Youth and Family Development, said the drop is directly related to more students using the county’s program in school and doesn’t reflect a decrease in the number of students using the program at the centers. But several employees at two centers said their students haven’t used any programs in several months.

McKinney said the Eastdale and Glenwood Youth and Family Development centers now do not have academic coaches working with students on the programs, but the computer rooms are available for students to use on their own.

He said the changes to the city’s program aren’t the result of any shortcomings of Lexia. The latest results from Lexia, he said, show significantly fewer students reading below grade level compared to where they started in August 2016.

For example, of 146 kindergarten students using Lexia, 75 started the year reading below grade level. As of late February, only 11 are considered below grade level. Of the 141 first-graders using Lexia, 76 started off reading below grade level, and that number decreased to 46, a report shows.

Gains from third to fifth grade didn’t produce such big leaps, but there was still positive movement. For example, of the 164 fifth-graders using Lexia, 103 started below grade level and 86 are still below grade level.

McKinney said it’s much easier to catch younger students up to grade level than older students who are multiple grades behind.

“We’re targeting the kids most at-risk,” he said. “Some of the fifth-graders may be on a kindergarten level, so we’re not going to take them to on-grade level.”

Lexia also predicts whether a student will finish the year ready for the next grade level. Most of the students now in the city’s literacy program are not predicted to finish the year on target.

Of the 2,902 students who used Lexia at least once this school year, 1,127 were labeled “high risk” to not finish the year “on target,” meaning they are ready for the next grade level. As of February 1,065 students were still considered “high risk.” Of the 302 students who started the school year “on target,” only 143 now are on target.

McKinney said the indicators for whether a student will finish the year ready for the next grade level don’t adequately reflect the gains students are making throughout the year. Those indicators can also change each day and will change before the students finish the program in July ahead of the next school year, he said.

The main goal for the city’s centers, McKinney said, is to ensure students are getting some kind of positive reinforcement of what they were taught in school before they go home at night.

Since September 2016, 2,902 people used Lexia at a Chattanooga recreation center:

› 15.7 percent of users logged in only once

› 36.3 percent of users logged in 2-7 times

› 17.6 percent of users logged in 8-14 times

› 9.8 percent of users logged in 15-21 times

› 6.2 percent of users logged in 22-28 times

› 6.7 percent of users logged in 29-35 times

› 7.6 percent of users logged in more than 36 times, the equivalent of six weeks or more