April 12, 2019. Richmondmag.

Sitting inside an empty classroom near the front office, members of the faith-based coalition Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities (RISC) are listening to the Woodville Elementary School morning announcements with Richmond Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp.

“I am somebody. I am proud of myself, and I will act in a way to make others proud of me, too,” Principal Shannon Washington says over the intercom. Within minutes, the second-year principal darts in to greet about a dozen RISC Education Team members who are visiting on this December morning to observe a pilot program called Reading Mastery that debuted at six elementary and two middle schools this past fall. The group pushed for a “proven reading curriculum” for academically struggling schools such as Woodville, where only about a third of students were reading on grade level last year.

The program uses fully scripted materials for each reading level, which typically take a year to complete in 30- to 45-minute lessons focused on sounding out words, oral reading fluency and comprehension skills, interspersed with activities such as coloring to help students remember vocabulary. The advocates point to a track record of success with Reading Mastery, which Buckingham County Public Schools implemented from 2009 to 2012 and saw students’ Standards of Learning reading scores improve from 45 percent to 98 percent passage in two years.

At Woodville in Richmond’s East End, students in kindergarten through second grade participate in the program. “For some of our teachers, they struggled with [the scripted lessons] at first,” Washington says. “The students love it, though, because [it involves] competition.”

By March, Epp says via email, teachers have expressed enthusiasm as they begin to see improvement in their students’ mid-year assessments. “We are eager to do a broader analysis of the program’s efficacy as one part of a balanced approach to building on-grade-level literacy for all our students,” she adds.

Escorting the adults into a bright, open room where first-graders sit in groups, focused on lesson materials, Washington says the program has especially helped students who are reading below first-grade level.

Janice Lacy, a retired RPS elementary teacher and RISC member, says she is impressed by the students’ sustained interest. “I just left a first-grade classroom where the students hardly even evidenced the fact we were in there — which says to me, school is their job and they were at work.”

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