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Can short daily tutoring sessions help CMS kids read? Researchers are watching

Teaching assistant Takela Martin helps kindergartener Kairo Thomas with a Once reading lesson at Oakdale Elementary.
Ann Doss Helms
Teaching assistant Takela Martin helps kindergartener Kairo Thomas with a Once reading lesson at Oakdale Elementary.

Takela Martin has been a teacher assistant for 19 years, but this year she has a new assignment. Every day she calls in 18 kindergarteners at Oakdale Elementary, one at a time, to do reading lessons.

On a recent morning, she helped Kairo Thomas sound out words like “cake” and “rebuild.” She listened to him read sentences and talked to him about punctuation: “That is a comma. And you remember we said that’s not a stop. It’s just where you take a breath, right?” Then he read passages from a story.

The lessons are scripted by a California company called Once, which also provides coaches who review her sessions through the laptop she uses and suggest ways to improve. Oakdale, in northwest Charlotte, is among 16 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools taking part in a national research project run by Stanford University to measure how well this particular approach works.

The Once program falls under the trendy term “high-dosage tutoring,” which is widely viewed as one of the most effective strategies for helping students make up ground lost during pandemic disruptions. In this case, though, students too young to have faced those disruptions are getting daily tutoring in kindergarten or first grade in hopes they’ll never fall behind.

Sharrone Powell
Ann Doss Helms
Sharrone Powell.

Most of Oakdale’s students are Black or Hispanic and come from low-income homes. Even before the pandemic, CMS and districts across North Carolina struggled to achieve strong reading proficiency among those groups of students when they took state reading exams in third grade.

Oakdale Principal Sharrone Powell says that work needs to start early, “so that by the time your children get to third grade by the time that End of Grade test comes, they’re already ready.”

“It’s not time for them to get ready then. They need to be ready when they walk in the door,” she said. “And the only way that they can get ready is by having those strong foundations of reading.”

What’s high-dosage tutoring?

The “high dosage” label applies to frequency and intensity of tutoring, but there’s a lot of variation: An adult can work with one child or a handful. Tutors can be volunteers or trained educators. Sessions can be daily or a few times a week, and they can take place during or outside school hours.

The Once approach, designed by California parents and educators who helped their kids learn to read from home during remote classes, involves 15-minute in-person sessions every day, with the same adult seeing the same kids consistently during the school day. Each session incorporates the strategies known as the science of reading: Teaching children the sounds of letters, combining them to make words, building vocabulary and putting it all together for fluent reading.

Once CEO Matt Pasternack, a former teacher who moved into education technology, acknowledges that’s expensive and labor-intensive. He estimates CMS would have spent $200,000 for this year’s pilot, which involves 400 children. But Stanford’s National Student Support Accelerator, which specializes in research into tutoring, has a grant from Accelerate to cover this year’s costs for participating schools in CMS, Nashville and South Bend, Indiana.

Pasternack hopes to end the year with new clients — and eventually independent research that shows Once gets results.

“Let’s do one year, and let’s make it go really really well, and give the foundation so next year when those kids walk into first grade they’re reading off the board, they’re reading worksheets, they’re reading books in class, they’re reading books to take home. They are on their way to the journey to being readers,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Making staff available

It’s not practical to expect classroom teachers to carve off the time for 15-minute daily tutoring blocks, so Once provides scripted lessons that can be carried out by assistants and other support staff. They adjust to each student's levels as they move through the program.

Still, Powell had to designate two staffers to provide Once sessions to students in two of the school’s four kindergarten classes, a total of 35 children. “That is their task, all day every day,” Powell said.

The personal contact is important for beginning readers. Martin, who has been an elementary school assistant for 19 years, says she bonds with her kids even though she has a script to follow.

“Sometimes when they come in, I be like, ‘How’s your day going? How was your weekend? What did you do?’ And they can’t wait to tell me. And I’ll get that part out of the way so then we can start our program,” she said.

Martin says she was skeptical when she heard in training that Once guaranteed results.

“ ‘Guaranteed’ is a strong word,” she said, laughing. “So I’m up there thinking like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, but we’ll see.’ But I have seen it.”

Martin says some of her children started the year with no reading skills — and some speaking little English. Kairo, whom she describes as one of her better readers, knew his letters at the start of the year but now sounds out words and enjoys reading to his family.

Powell says she’s also seeing “a huge gain” compared with the middle of last year. She said this year 72% of first-graders started the year at grade level; she predicts that when current kindergarteners move up that will top 85%.

Scientific tracking

But it’s one thing to be enthusiastic about a program as it’s playing out … and another, more difficult thing, to prove it’s making a difference. That’s where the Stanford research comes in.

CMS submitted a list of comparable schools as potential participants and Stanford randomly selected half of them. The rest will be a control group to help gauge whether adding Once to the mix makes a statistically significant difference in reading performance.

Pasternack acknowledges it’s impossible to control all the variables that affect reading performance. The quality of teachers and principals varies from school to school, and factors in families’ lives affect their children. Some schools and their community partners add their own reading supports — Oakdale, for instance, uses Orton-Gillihgham, an approach initially developed for students with dyslexia, to help all students learn to read.

The Stanford team will tease out valid comparisons — and track the students in coming years. It’s common for big gains from early childhood programs to fade as kids move through elementary school.

Meanwhile, CMS will have to decide soon whether to put money to keep or expand Once into its 2024-25 budget.

“Our highest hope is that we can scale it next year if the results come back in terms of positive student growth, and also pending on funding as well,” said Pa Thao, the CMS director of elementary education.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.