Traniessa Wright slowly pronounces the word “road” and anxiously waits for a student in Room 2 of Pointer Ridge Elementary School to say whether the vowel sound is long or short.
With only one eager student raising his hand, Wright figures that the others might be a little sleepy. After all, it is the middle of summer break. She instructs them all to stand up and, on the spot, creates a game to keep them engaged.
She writes “Yes” and “No” on the classroom’s interactive whiteboard.
If the word makes a long vowel sound, the students should stand in front of the “Yes.” A short vowel sound should prompt students to gather in front of the “No.”
The exercise, designed to teach the fundamentals of reading and math, is part of a new, free, countywide summer school program for incoming second-graders who are reading below grade level in Prince George’s County.
The students did not necessarily fail first grade, but school officials determined that they needed the additional instruction to perform well on assessments and to avoid falling further behind their peers when school begins in August.
Gladys Whitehead, the school system’s director of curriculum and instruction, said the new program is part of the district’s effort to focus on literacy, a push aimed at improving student achievement and increasing the school system’s four-year graduation rate, which is about 75 percent.
“We know that being able to read is critical to getting a good education,” Whitehead said. “If you look at the dropout rate, those students have a low reading ability. The key is to prepare them early on so they progress from grade to grade.”
More than 500 second-graders are midway through the six-week remediation program, which targets students who received low scores on reading and math assessments.
Across the hall from Wright’s classroom, nine children sat across from Janice Lee as she paired up the students for an exercise, during which the pairs were supposed to hold up their fingers to show the numbers she called out. Lee started with 4, then moved to 11, which required the students to get their partner’s help. “Who can tell me what is a teen number?” Lee asked.
“A teen number is a number that is a 14, 15, 16, or 17,” Brooke Mummaw, 7, said.
“But why not 20?” Lee asks.
“Because a 20 has two groups of tens,” said Gabina Dur, 7.
School system officials said the students will be retested at the end of summer school and tracked through reading assessments and classroom observations next year to see what impact the program has on test scores and student achievement.
Robert Smith, an associate professor at George Mason University and a former school superintendent in Arlington, said Prince George’s appears to be bucking a national trend, as school districts across the country have started to scale back the number of days and sites for elementary summer school programs.
In Prince George’s, the reading program focuses on phonics, fluency and comprehension while the math classes center on mathematical reasoning and critical thinking. The program is free for the 500 students who attend.
Smith said summer school for elementary students is such a good idea that he encourages school districts to consider programs that work with children before they enter kindergarten.
“We know the earlier that we can intervene, the greater payoff later in terms of student learning,” he said.
Demetrius Lewis Sr., whose 7-year-old son attends the summer school at Pointer Ridge, said he is grateful for the additional instruction.
“We’ve seen a tremendous benefit,” Lewis said. “His confidence has grown, and the staff is phenomenal.”
Lewis said his son attended a home-based day care, where a curriculum was being followed. But, shortly after his son started school, Lewis noticed that Demetrius, like some of the other children who attended the day care, were not adequately prepared for kindergarten.
His son did not recognize as many words as the other children. He had more difficulty distinguishing the difference between long and short vowel sounds. And he had trouble with his handwriting.“It made our job 10 times harder to try to get him up to speed,” Lewis said.
But Demetrius, who attends Whitehall Elementary, a 2012 national Blue Ribbon school, continued to struggle in a school where expectations are high.
The school provided a reading instructor four times a week. The Lewises hired a tutor at home. Lewis, who meets with Demetrius’s teacher for weekly updates, said his son’s scores have improved and he is reading at grade level. The summer program is designed to help him stay the course.
“For us, this is perfect,” Lewis said. “We didn’t want him to digress. This helps to keep encouraging him and to help with his confidence going forward.”