Third-grader Xavier leaves his regular classroom twice a week to meet with Dave Wilkie. Wilkie's a 78-year-old retired machinist and Vietnam vet with some free time on his hands. Xavier is an 8-year-old born in Haiti who's bursting with energy.
The unlikely pair, matched by the Boston nonprofit Literations, meet in a sunny classroom at Framingham's Miriam F. McCarthy Elementary School for one reason: to read together.
“When I go into the classroom door, he's almost waiting for me,” Wilkie told GBH News. “He jumps up. He almost runs to me.”
Studies have shown that children are behind on their reading, and gaps predating the pandemic have only widened for Black and brown students, English learners and students with disabilities. But teachers don’t always have the time to work with students one-on-one, and many parents are busy and burnt out from pandemic reshuffling. To try to fill the gap, nonprofits are creating new and innovative programs to help kids catch up.
“It really is all hands on deck,” said Tiffany Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, who studies reading development. “I think that we have to get creative and think about how to support children holistically and how the whole community can rally around to support these children.”
The importance of early literacy can’t be understated. Reading proficiency in elementary school is viewed as a benchmark of later academic success. Those who struggle to proficiently read by the end of third grade are four times more likely than their peers to not graduate from high school on time, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Standardized test scores indicate that more than a quarter of Framingham's fourth graders have fallen behind during the pandemic. Twenty-seven percent scored “not meeting expectations” on the English Language Arts MCAS this year, nearly double the 14% in 2019. Many were from disadvantaged or impoverished backgrounds, had special needs or were learning English.
It’s a shift observed across the state: Thirteen percent of Massachusetts fourth graders were “not meeting expectations” in ELA this year, compared to 9% in 2019. In one dramatic example, Hogan and her team found that 60% of kindergarteners are at risk for reading problems in the Worcester Public Schools — double the pre-pandemic percentage. Hogan said colleagues from across the country are finding similar trends.
Her research also surveyed parents and found many are experiencing burnout from supporting their children’s learning at home and would rather focus on their social-emotional development. She suggested parents consult with their teachers to make the most of the time they do spend on academic work with their child.
“I think one of the ways that parents can be strategic is to try to work closely with their child's teacher to say, ‘If I only have 20 minutes a day to help my child on their academics, what should I focus on for my specific child?’” Hogan said.
Marty Martinez is CEO of Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit based in Boston that collaborates with pediatricians. He said many people, including parents, skipped primary care visits out of fear of contracting COVID-19. It’s been frustrating, he said, because those interactions with doctors reinforce the work of schools.
Martinez said his organization is working to reach as many families as possible, but its work alone is not enough to address the gaps.
“For some populations, recovering from COVID is not something we're going to fix just because we have outdoor dining and our people can go places,” he said. “For some populations, including children, these impacts are going to be long-lasting.”
Edith Bazile, a former president of the Black Educators' Alliance of Massachusetts, said schools in Boston are already seeing worsening inequities between students of different racial demographics and abilities. She thinks this moment could be an opportunity to rethink how to create a strong foundation of literacy for all children.
“This is not a student problem. This is an institutional problem around how public education has been designed and ... who it was designed for,” Bazile said. “The gift of literacy given to our students at an early age can be boundless because I know as a child, I could, despite my circumstances, travel to unknown places and fantasize about being characters and saying, 'I want to do that or be that when I grow up.’”
At an elementary school in Framingham, around round tables with small chairs, the work is ongoing, one student at a time.
Wilkie, the grandfather-retiree, guides Xavier through books about soccer — his favorite — that Wilkie brings from home.
The pilot with Literations started small in January, with 18 volunteers and 52 students in Framingham. According to Xavier, the program’s working.
“Before, I used to mess up all the time,” he said. “[Now] I barely get wrong words.”
The results aren’t in, but at least 75% of the program’s students are expected to improve by half a grade by the end of this school year, according to Literations.
The hope for Xavier is that any pandemic setbacks won’t last beyond elementary school.