Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 30 2013

Schools can’t do everything. Unfortunately.

I had a student last year, one of my favorites, who did not speak to me until October. She really didn’t start talking to me regularly until January. This kid tested in the 0.5 percentile for oral language skills, which means if you put 200 kids in a room, she would be the worst of all of them at speaking, making sentences, finding the words she wants, and expressing her ideas. Her whole family struggles with language and speaking, and she simply missed the boat on learning to talk because she didn’t hear very much language when she was little.

I love this kid. She’s sweet, she’s funny, and she does an excellent job of communicating nonverbally. I had never realized how many jokes you can make without speaking until she kept doing it. She also talked more and more as she got more comfortable with me, and continued this year to talk to me, not chattily, but at least functionally.

When I tested her reading skills at the beginning of 4th grade, she was at a kindergarten level. She grew so much in her reading, and in her writing and understanding of language. By the end of 4th grade she was at a 3rd grade level. Not on grade level, but darn close considering where she started.

She came back after summer break and her 5th grade teacher tested her again. She was reading at a 1st grade level. She worked hard, as did her teacher, and she ended the year making 1.5 years of gains, at a mid-second grade level. Which means she reads half a grade level lower now than she did a year ago.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for tests not showing everything and reading levels being approximate, but all that aside, this kid is the poster child for why schools can’t do everything. She made so much growth in school—more than a year of growth each year. In fact, she’s made 4.5 years of reading growth in the last 2 years. But she gets so little language stimulation, or stimulation of any kind, while she is at home over the summer that she lost 2 years of skills in 2 months. I say this not based on conjecture but on experience with her, her siblings, her parents, and her living situation, which I have visited. She’s a perfect example of why I think we, of all places, should have year-round school. But until we address the deeper issues, the issues of poverty and generational language deficits and isolation, we can’t truly help kids like her. And she needs that help more than anybody.

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