MANSFIELD — It’s been more than a year since schools across Ohio went virtual for the first time. Students remained outside the classroom for the last two and a half months of the academic year.

State assessment test data indicates that those months of virtual learning caused a decline in literacy among early elementary school students.

Scores from last fall’s third grade English language arts assessment suggest literacy levels were lower than average for students entering third grade this school year. Richland County school districts saw an average drop of 10 percent in students scoring “proficient or higher” on the test from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020.

Richland County is far from an outlier. According to the Ohio Department of Education, more than 87 percent of school districts saw a decrease in the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher from 2019 to 2020. The average decrease in students scoring proficient or above was slightly more than 9%. 

Nevertheless, educators cautioned against putting too much emphasis on a test score.

“The test is a different test each year, given to an entirely different set of students each year, which makes it very difficult to do a direct comparison from one year to the next,” said Mike Ream, director of education at Ontario Local Schools. 

Ream said the results from a state exam provide one snapshot of a child. 

“The data we get from state-mandated assessments is information that we analyze to look for trends and ways to improve, but teaching a child is a very complex human relationship process that can never adequately be judged by one test,” he said.

Eastview Elementary Principal Missy Wigton agreed.

“You’re looking at one day. You’re only taking a snippet of the whole process,” she said, noting that environmental factors can impact a student’s overall performance.

Even before the pandemic, schools and communities across the country were looking for ways to boost literacy. Ideas like these could come in handy for helping students get back on track, in addition to the interventions and supports already in place.

Improving access to books

One common way to support reading proficiency is simply to get more books in the homes of young children. 

Wigton said one of the biggest challenges that came with the period of virtual learning last spring was students didn’t have access to the wide array of books at school.

“Students didn’t even have access necessarily to books (at home),” she said. “A lot of vendors stepped in and provided access to ebooks, but it’s not the same as sitting and holding a book in your lap, being able to mark it, highlight words you don’t know.”

One of the biggest ways parents can support their children’s literacy development is to read to them regularly and ask them questions to gauge their level of understanding about the reading.

“When they’re done reading, talk about the text,” Wigton suggested. “Where was the story? Who was the main character? How was that character feeling?”

The Mansfield-Richland County Public Library has reopened its branches for indoor browsing and checkout as well as curbside pickup. Other programs that make books available to keep include the Little Free Library movement and Dolly Parton Imagination Library. 

Residents can take and leave books as they please at Little Free Libraries located across the county. Locations include:

Crossroads City Center, 29 N. Main Street, Mansfield.

The 179th Airlift Wing, 1947 Harrington Memorial Road Mansfield.

Gorman Nature Center, 2295 Lexington Avenue Mansfield.

Lexington Community Park, Plymouth St. Lexington.

Bicentennial Park, Lexington-Ontario Road, Lexington. 

Marshall Park, 3375 Milligan Road, Ontario.

Shaum Family Free Library, 1724 Park Avenue West, Ontario.

Shiloh Village Office, 13 West Main Street, Shiloh.

Shiloh Mechanics Bank, 674 Free Road, Shiloh.

52 East Maxwell, Shelby.

33 West Broadway, Shelby.

New Haven Little Free Library, 2644 Prairie Street, New Haven.

Olivesburg General Store, 4778 State Route 545 Olivesburg.

Parents can also sign their children up for the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which delivers a free book each month to children ages 0 through 5.

Research has shown children who participate in the free book program earned higher early language and math scores on kindergarten assessments, even after controlling for other key factors associated with kindergarten readiness. 

Extra, individualized support

Literacy-focused after-school programs have also been shown to help struggling students. Schools in Kansas, Mississippi and South Carolina have embraced Reading Roadmap’s afterschool and summer programming, which uses research-based techniques and small group settings where students can get more individualized attention

Governor Mike DeWine asked schools in February to begin working on Extended Learning Plans aimed at helping students who have fallen behind academically during the pandemic. 

Both Mansfield City Schools and Lucas Local Schools have announced they will provide extra academic support to students this summer.

Superintendent Brad Herman of Lucas Local Schools said the district is planning to have optional sessions for students during the first few weeks of August, before the start of the school year. These sessions will be a chance for students to come in, get extra help from teachers and get a “jump start” on the 2021-2022 school year.

No student will be required to attend, but both teachers and parents will be able to recommend kids to the program.

Mansfield City Schools is in the process of planning a summer program for students in grades K-8 along with a credit recovery program for students at Mansfield Senior High, chief academic officer Stephen Rizzo said.

Elementary staff members are also participating in professional development focused on the science of reading, Rizzo said.

Community initiatives 

Community members outside school systems have also come up with creative ways to pitch in. Barber Jon Escueta of Kurtztown, Pennsylvania pays children $3 if they read a book to him while getting their hair cut. Escueta started the initiative, which other barbers have since adopted, to help promote confidence, public speaking and a love for reading.

In Cincinnati, two teens developed a free online tutoring service for children in their area, with high school students serving as tutors. A family foundation in Tennessee is working to hire 1,000 college students to work as tutors in Boys and Girls clubs this summer.

Regardless of the method, strengthening early literacy is an important task.

“It’s critical. Reading is everything in your education,” Wigton said. “If you struggle with reading, it’s going to hinder you in math and science and social studies, so it’s really important that we hone in on that at the elementary level.”

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