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In K-3, Retention Prevention Is The Name Of The Game

smiling woman with book
Kevin Lavery
Jessica Baker has a daughter in the Lansing Public Schools. Last year, her daughter benefitted from an "IRIP," or Individualized Reading Instruction Plan.

Three times each year, Michigan students in grades K-3 take a series of reading assessment tests.  These tests serve as checkpoints to ensure students are meeting specific literacy goals.  Typically, students who fall below the standard are placed on a tailor-made reading plan to help them develop their skills.


There’s an old folk tale that goes like this: Three starving travelers arrive in a village and trick some unwitting locals into sharing their food.  They boil a pot with nothing more than a large rock at the bottom.  Pretty soon, onlookers start filling the pot with vegetables…their curiosity and anticipation overriding their selfishness. 

It’s a lesson in the virtue of sharing.

You may know the story as “Stone Soup.”  At  Lewton Elementary in Lansing, it’s “La Sopa De Piedras.”

Here, at the city’s Spanish immersion magnet school, students get a double dose of grammar.

“The skills are still the same,” says Jessica Baker, a Lewton parent.  “You need to know your ABC’s; your 123’s.  How to write the structure of a sentence. You're just learning it in two different languages.”

Baker’s daughter Olivia is in the third grade.  Back in first grade, Olivia faced some reading challenges.  By second grade, her teacher was able to pinpoint those problem areas.  That’s when Olivia was placed on what’s called an “IRIP,” an Individualized Reading Instruction Plan.

Every night, Olivia took home a book and filled out a worksheet with her mom.

Baker says slowly, her reading skills grew stronger.

“By the end of the second grade year, she was able to go to third grade and was where she needed to be,” Baker explains.  “But throughout that whole process, it was just really a learning curve, I think for both me as a parent and for her teacher.” 

There’s a huge premium on good literacy skills in the early elementary grades.  Reading is one of the most scrutinized subject areas in K-3 education.  In Michigan, students take an assessment test every September, January and May.

From the moment their students arrive in school, teachers need to know where to find their starting lines.

“We have kids that are really at a very high level when they come in at kindergarten level, and we have some that are not so high,” says LaDonna Mask, the principal at Kendon K-3 Elementary in Lansing.  “So it does provide us that information to make sure that we are meeting kids individually where they are.” 

By law, a student who displays a reading deficiency must be placed on a reading plan within 30 days from the time the issue is first identified.  

The plan is designed as a partnership involving teachers, students and parents.

“If a child has an IRIP, then that parent will know the one or two particular areas that we are going to focus on for the next few weeks,” says Kendon Elementary literacy interventionist Debra Brown.  “And this is divided up into some very pertinent areas of reading.”

That includes things like rhyming and syllables.  There’s phonics; the system of correlating letters with sounds.  The other areas are fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

All that might seem like a heavy lift for busy parents juggling work and home life.  But Brown says it’s not meant to be a burden.

“This doesn't mean that we expect them to conduct a regular school day session from the time the child gets off the bus or jumps out the car and walk through the front door until the time they go to bed,” she says. 

Jessica Baker agrees.  She speaks not only as a mother, but as an advocate for early ed. 

She’s the parent liaison for the Ingham Great Start Collaborative.  She frequently talks with her peers who may feel a little stressed about their child’s literacy development. 

Baker tells them it’s an opportunity to have fun and be creative.

“It's not the end of the world,” Baker says.  “Don't panic. These are the things you're already doing.  It’s kind of walking parents through that stuff. Do you sit down and read with your little one? Yes. How about when you're driving or walking? Do you ask them to read that stop sign and read this or that?  That’s Literacy 101.”

Baker concedes parents and teachers are feeling some added pressure this school year.  The so-called Read By Grade Three law takes full effect in 2020, once third graders take their spring assessment test.  The statute says students who fail to achieve proficiency in English Language Arts on the upcoming M-STEP will be held back in the fall.

In Michigan schools, retention prevention is the name of the game.  The law requires struggling students get the extra help they need before it’s too late.

Kendon principal LaDonna Mask says teachers have been doing that all along.

“It really is about communication and not just waiting until May or June to say, oh sorry this happened…but making sure that everybody involved knows what's happening along the way,” says Mask.

In the meantime, educators are closely watching a bill in the Michigan Legislature that would eliminate the retention mandate of the law.  It’s sponsored by 12 Senate Democrats.  The bill is currently in committee where it awaits a hearing.

As for Olivia, her mom Jessica says she’s doing quite well in third grade without a remedial reading plan.  Come spring, she’s confident her daughter will make the grade on her M-STEP test.



Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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