In a few weeks, more than 750 Newark Public School students will be entering second grade better prepared to read proficiently thanks to an innovative program between the district one of the city’s highest performing charter schools.

Over the summer, the students attended the “Rising Second Grade” program, a collaborative effort between NPS and Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy.

The need for the program came after the district identified a disturbing trend among many of their second graders – they were reading below grade level.

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“At the end of kindergarten, it looks like kids are reading well,” said Samantha Messer, special assistant of literacy instruction at Newark Public Schools

“Then something happens between the fall and winter of first grade,” Messer said. “We noticed the decline in January.”

The importance of reading at grade level at an early age cannot be understated.

Children who aren’t reading proficiently by fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time.

State District Superintendent of NPS Christopher Cerf said a program like "Rising Second Grade" can set students on the path to success.

“Research shows that if a student is not reading on grade level by the time they reach the third grade, they are far less likely to succeed later in life,” said Cerf. “Therefore, we brought an enhanced focus to this group of students this summer to see if we can employ targeted and specific interventions to get them where they need to be over the next year as a part of a larger strategy to increase literacy in the early years of a child’s development.”

Messer said the inspiration for the “Rising Second Grade” program has been a few years in the making.

After participating in Uncommon School’s “Great Habits, Great Readers” literacy workshop several years ago, Messer said she realized that the program would benefit NPS educators.

“It was the best workshop I’ve ever been to,” Messer said. “Their approach to reading is so systematic and easy to learn.”  

With the help of teachers and literacy coaches from Uncommon Schools, NPS teachers received training and development in phonics, reading, guided reading training and other practical strategies during the “Great Habits, Great Readers” literacy workshop.

NPS teachers also spent three days in professional development that focused on early literacy strategies.

The training was a continuation of an ongoing and collaborative relationship between NPS and Uncommon Schools in the area of literacy.

Over the last two years, the district and the charter have opened up classrooms to each other and shared resources in order to learn from each other’s practices for the benefit of Newark students.

“We appreciate this opportunity to deepen our collaboration with Newark Public Schools,” said Brett Peiser, CEO of Uncommon Schools.

“This partnership underscores Uncommon’s commitment to all of Newark’s children,” Peiser said. “It's up to all of us to ensure every child in Newark - whether at a charter public school or district public school - has a chance to attend college and we are grateful to be able to do this work alongside NPS educators.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka lauded the collaborative efforts of both district and charter schools.

“Now that the people of Newark are about to regain control of our schools, it is critical for the parents, students, teachers and administrators of traditional public schools and charters schools to work closely together to assure a world-class education for all of Newark’s children,” Baraka said.

“This kind of collaboration has already begun,” the mayor said. “We saw it in the victories of the Unity Slate in the last two school board elections. We saw in the joint campaign to seek full finding of Newark schools in the state budget. We are seeing it in the sharing of school programs and ideas. And we expect to see it in the coming public meetings and forums to enable community input in the transition process.”

The collaborative effort between the district and Uncommon began in January, after NPS staff used a Diagnostic Reading Assessment to identify first graders below reading level throughout the district.

Once students were identified, NPS reached out to parents to encourage them to enroll in the district’s free Summer Plus program, and parents responded in spades.

About 750 NPS students participated in the program, which was taught by approximately 60 NPS teachers and literacy coaches.

In addition, parents were invited to participate in four separate workshops on how to promote reading in the home.

The workshop shared practical teaching strategies in the area of reading comprehension and is part of a larger effort by the Newark Public Schools to enhance supports for all rising second graders who are not yet reading on grade level.

Simultaneous to recruiting students, NPS handpicked top-notch teachers and literacy coaches from across the district to teach in the revamped month-long summer program.

According to Messer, a specific learning pattern has been identified in kindergarten students entering first grade, and the district will be addressing the issue going forward.

Messer, who was excited to introduce the teaching strategies to NPS teachers, said that the “Rising Second Grade” program is focused on instructional practices and leadership development.

“We’ve been really intentional about how we’ve rolled it out,” Messer noted. “We recruited the best teachers from NPS and put them in front of the kids who needed it. This is the first time we’ve done this kind of thing. It’s been great.”

Students who participated in the “Rising Second Graders” program will take assessments at the end of the summer and throughout the school year to gauge the effectiveness of the program, but positive results are anticipated.

NPS teachers will also be bringing their new strategies into the classroom and will be integrating the new methods into their curricula.

“We will be integrating this into the new school year and we’ll be able to track results throughout the year,” Messer said.

Baraka noted the new era of collaboration, stating that those who have propagated a divisive narrative are slowly losing traction.

“The influence of those who seek to divide parents for their own ideological or political agendas is on the wane,” he said. “The future of our children is too important to let ideological or political differences get in the way.”