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School leaders, history events aim to narrow reading gap for black students

| Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, 11:14 p.m.

Brothers Emmanuel Hatcher and Johnathan Harper sat beside each other in a big upholstered chair while they took turns reading aloud from a book.

“Freedom has a price in the land of liberty,” read Emmanuel, 10, from the book “Brick by Brick,” by Charles R. Smith Jr., while Johnathan, 9, looked over his shoulder in the children's room in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Homewood branch.

The boys on Saturday were among children and adults reading aloud passages of books and poems by black writers during this month's 25th National African-American Read-In, a Black History Month initiative taking place at colleges, libraries, schools and other venues all over the nation.

Nationally, the reading achievement gap between black children and their white counterparts has been decreasing, education experts said. But black youngsters still lag behind.

“I think that some parents don't understand the importance of preparing their children to read before they enter school. They depend on the schools to do that,” said Lorena Amos-Brock, a retired Pittsburgh teacher who led the Read-In in the Homewood library. She also is president of the United Black Book Clubs of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania's black fourth-graders led their peers nationwide in their gains from 2003 to 2013 in reading scores — a 16.6-point increase to 208 points — and their score topped the national average for black fourth-graders, 205, according to federal data analyzed by The Education Trust. The Washington-based nonprofit works to close the gap between children from low-income and more affluent households.

Black fourth-graders in Pennsylvania started out farther behind black fourth-graders nationally, according to Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at The Education Trust. They have yet to catch up to their white counterparts in Pennsylvania, whose average reading score increased 5.4 points to 233 points.

“That's a big gap. That's a gap that's almost double the amount of progress black kids have made,” Hall said.

For Emmanuel and Johnathan, reading time is a requirement in the morning after they get dressed for school and before they play in the evenings and on weekends, said their aunt, Brigitte Davis, 54, of Monessen, who has had custody of her nephews for four years.

“Reading is stressed a lot,” she said.

Multifaceted approach

The issues behind the achievement gap are multifaceted, so they require a multifaceted approach, education experts said.

School closings and teacher furloughs because of budget cuts can affect children more profoundly if they're living in poverty or if English is not their first language, said Linda Lane, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The state's second-largest district is studying the causes for declines in the percentage of black students who scored proficient or advanced in reading on state achievement tests, the PSSAs, which dropped from 46.6 percent to 39.6 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Taking a colorblind approach to education can do more harm than good, Lane said.

“We want teachers to recognize children's cultures. It's a part of who they are,” Lane said.

The district is working to train staff of all races to understand race and the impact that it can have on learning. The district has implemented We Promise, a program designed to support African-American male students.

On Friday afternoon, five second-graders read “nonsense” words at the prompting of reading specialist Heather Vidic at Clara Barton Elementary School in West Mifflin.

The made-up words help children decode large words when they see them, said Vidic.

West Mifflin Area School District has had its share of demographic changes over the past several years. On the second day of this school year, 150 transfer students from Wilkinsburg, Woodland Hills, Steel Valley and McKeesport — predominantly black or low-income districts — unexpectedly showed up for school in West Mifflin.

The district also enrolls students in grades 7-12 from Duquesne, a city with no high school and a population that was 55 percent black as of 2010, and with a 2008-12 poverty level of 39.4 percent.

“The biggest challenge truthfully is making up for lost time, especially with a transient student population,” said Superintendent Daniel Castagna. “It's so hard when you don't catch reading difficulties and issues at an early age.”

In 2013, 43 percent of the district's black students in grades 3-8 and 11 scored proficient or advanced in reading, compared with 73 percent of white students, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Some programs West Mifflin employs to address that gap include an early literacy intervention program for all kindergarten through second-graders in which teachers and reading specialists work with students in small, skill-based groups and constantly assess their progress.

That is followed up with a special reading program for kindergarten through seventh-graders.

Castagna said budget cuts make it difficult to provide that extra support. Since 2009, 70 staff members, including 24, teachers have been cut.

“Again, it's a struggle because the expectations and the level of rigor that we expect not only from ourselves but from our students, that is continuously rising. So we certainly aren't going to ever lower our expectations because of financial issues,” Castagna said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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