Charter school survives tough year with nonreading students

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- No one expected students to be so behind when Della Lamb Charter Elementary opened in summer 1999.

Pretests taken during the first few weeks of classes identified 39 percent of the second-, third- and fourth-graders as "nonreaders" -- meaning the children couldn't sound out words.

Many didn't know their alphabet. Some could recognize simple three-letter words like "the," but that was about it.

On top of that, 28 percent of the children were learning the English language as their second language. That number increased to 36 percent the second year and 49 percent this year. The children are Somali, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Arab, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hispanic and American Indian.

The school is typical of many of the charters that have experienced ups and downs as they try to overcome the academic deficits the children bring to the school.

Test scores were low that first year but improved significantly the second year, although they still haven't reached the state average.

Couldn't read, write

Michelle Culpepper, a second-grade teacher, said if she wanted to give students a test in those first few months, all she could do was ask them to draw a picture. They couldn't read and they certainly couldn't write.

Lesson plans were scrapped and the school day was altered. School officials cut down on the amount of time spent on social studies and science and increased reading lessons from once to twice a day.

When school officials decided to focus on reading, they knew state test scores would suffer. They were right -- that first year, the school scored well below the district and state average on the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, which ranks students on five levels.

At the bottom level, Step 1, students demonstrate only a minimal understanding of fundamental concepts. Students at the "progressing" level are beginning to use their knowledge of simple concepts to solve basic problems, but still make many errors.

At the "nearing proficient" level, students understand many key concepts, although their ability to apply the knowledge is limited. Missouri wants all students to be at the proficient level and be able to show they understand skills. At the top, advanced level, students demonstrate in-depth understanding of all concepts.

On the communications test, 80 percent of the pupils scored in the bottom two levels and none scored in the top two. Social studies results were even worse, with 93.8 percent of students scoring in the bottom two levels.

Others worse off

Della Lamb's struggles were not unique.

Central Missouri State University, which sponsors Della Lamb and nine other charters, had periodic meetings to assess the schools. At one meeting, when Judy Akers, associate director of Della Lamb Community Services, shared the number of students who could not read, the principal of Southwest Charter School piped up.

"'You think you have it bad?'" Akers recalled the principal saying. "'I have ninth-graders as nonreaders.'"

After spending the first year playing catch-up, Della Lamb tasted success with improved second-year test results. Instead of having 80 percent of its students scoring in the bottom two levels on the communications test, 62.9 percent are now in that range. There were similar improvements in other subject areas.

Looking back, Akers said much of the struggle that first year could be blamed on what students hadn't learned while in mainstream Kansas City schools.

"They'd fallen through the cracks," she said. "That's why other charter schools are struggling."