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updated: 3/18/2014 2:37 PM

U-46 teachers, parents: Don't make reading optional

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Dozens of Elgin Area School District U-46 parents, students and teachers packed a school board meeting Monday night railing against proposed changes to the reading program at the district's eight middle schools.

Superintendent Josť Torres prefaced public comments by saying the proposed changes that would not require reading classes of all students starting next school year were his decision and not the school board's. He said no decision would be made Monday night on cutting teachers attached to the reading programs at the middle schools.

"We must emphasize that the reductions-in-force are not budget-related," he said, attributing them to declining enrollment and other factors.

According to the administration's proposal, only middle school students who need reading support -- those below the 30th percentile -- would be placed in reading interventions or reading classes. Students who do not need additional reading support would be able to select from elective options, including AVID, Spanish, rotation, orchestra, band or chorus, according to a message Torres sent to middle school parents and staffs.

AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a program to help bridge the ethnic achievement gap. The program is implemented districtwide at every middle school and high school.

A quarterly rotation consists of art, family and consumer science, computers, and general/cultural music classes.

Torres said students will still have the opportunity to choose reading as one of the electives.

More than 30 people spoke against cutting compulsory reading classes for all students as going against the district's own motto of "Academic Success For All."

"If students cannot read they are hamstrung in all other academic areas, including math and science," said Anna Hallock McEvilly, eighth-grade reading teacher at Canton Middle School in Streamwood.

McEvilly quoted data from her own classroom saying a student in the 31st percentile is two grade levels behind in reading and would receive zero support and won't be able to sign up for a reading class under the proposed changes. Students would have to be more than two grade levels behind to qualify for reading with the new plan, she said.

"These kids in the 31st percentile and above are part of this word 'all,'" she said. "If we do not reverse this decision, this logo is no longer valid."

Dennis Bednarz, who has taught reading for 13 years, said the administration's proposal is a disservice to teachers, schools and students.

"I've seen below average and above average readers become even better readers through the course of our subject," he said. "I am a man of logic and rationale, and tonight I fail to see either in this proposed decision to eliminate reading from the middle schools when the general consensus among the reading gurus all suggest that we should be teaching targeted reading levels through 11th grade in order to keep up with the rigors of high school and college textbooks."

Parent Lisa Del Guidice said her son is preparing for the ACT college entrance exam and wouldn't be prepared for it if not for the reading classes he took in middle school.

"The skills he needed he learned in reading in middle school," she said. "Don't make them optional. Don't make them electives. Children need reading no matter what their level is."

The district administration also is considering options to include speech and debate beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. Students will continue to take the four core academic classes of English, mathematics, social studies and science, as well as physical education.

"I must emphasize that the school day for our students remains the same," Torres wrote in his message. "We'll have the same start and end times. Students will still have an eight-period day and the same course load. And reading will continue to be a focus for our schools and we will ensure strong reading and writing components in all of our academic and elective courses."

Torres said he has asked his staff to meet with middle school principals Wednesday to further discuss middle school electives and staffing.

A decision on a reduction in force of teachers related to the middle school reading program changes has been postponed to a March 31 special school board meeting. The district also will delay the transfer/reassignment of teachers so that voluntary transfer will not occur until April.

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