How The Trenton Literacy Movement is changing the city’s future

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This article was originally published in the September 2018 Trenton Downtowner.

Noemi de la Puente, back left, a volunteer with the Trenton Digital Initiative; Wilson School principal Edward Bullock, and volunteers from Comcast Care Day celebrate with second graders from the Wilson School.

A dire economic future faces the vast majority of Trenton’s second graders. While the causes are many and complex, there is a life-saving remedy, and that is what the Trenton Literacy Movement (TTLM) is all about.

As TTLM chairman (and former Trenton Mayor) Doug Palmer says, “Children are taught to read through the third grade. After that, they read to learn. Because they lack reading skills, Trenton’s youngest students are behind the learning eight ball and most will never catch up. Indeed, national statistics show that two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The Trenton Literacy Movement seeks to put our youngsters on track to a better and more rewarding life.” He adds, “And, perhaps, to demonstrate that our example can be employed elsewhere.”

So how did TTLM come into being, how does its program work and what sets it apart from other literacy programs?

Much of the credit for TTLM’s creation and structure goes to civil rights attorney Walter Bliss. (He will deny this, but too many fellow board members squarely put him in the spotlight.) The tragedy associated with Trenton’s youngest students was brought to Bliss’s attention as chair of the Trenton NAACP’s Education Projects Committee. It was more than obvious — at several elementary schools 90 percent of the students are not reading at grade level — that something needed to be done. Bliss had formerly served on the Princeton School Board and was aware of an after school remedial reading program that was quite successful in the town’s middle school.

“It’s called Read180,” he says, “and it’s a computer-based reading program from Scholastic Inc. The problem, as we saw it, is that it is geared to middle school students. I was not alone in feeling that an earlier intervention program was needed in Trenton.”

The Trenton Literacy Movement has the support of political and school leaders, and its success is already measurable.

Bliss was put in touch with four others who were passionately interested in urban education issues: Kirk Norris, Carm Catanese (who has since gone on to perform yeoman duties as TTLM’s finance chairman), and the late Jim Dineen and Tony Kline.

“We spent over two years visiting other schools and examining various reading software programs,” Bliss recalls, “and ultimately settled on Lexia software. Its programs go through high school, but what we found to be crucial were ones that were geared to children in the youngest grades.”

Lexia combines individual and supervised instruction. Each student works at his or her own pace in completing the computer’s tasks without a judgmental adult hovering about. Lexia, however, reports all answers and accomplishments to a teacher. It instantly flags students who need more help or are having a particularly difficult time in one area. It is an assessment-based computer program, one that engages not only an individual but also a supervisor. “We found the assessment and tracking components to be unique,” Bliss notes.

The TTLM board was well aware that what works in one place does not necessarily produce the same result in another location. To ensure that its research findings and the resulting program would be applicable to Trenton schools, TTLM sponsored four years of summer pilot programs for students who could not read at grade level. “Bob Prunetti, then director of the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce, was a huge help in obtaining backing for this work,” Bliss says.

The results were more than encouraging. Lucy Feria, then serving as chief academic officer of the Trenton school system, was invited in August, 2015, to a summer program. One little boy saw her and ran up, exclaiming, “I can read!”

Who could resist such prideful joy? Feria couldn’t, and as she relates, “The child told me he couldn’t read at the start of the summer program. That just really resonated with me.”

As far as TTLM is concerned, that experience did more than resonate. Not only did Feria join the TTLM board as education chair, she also convinced the Trenton school district to buy the Lexia program for the entire system when she became the interim school superintendent in October, 2015. Previously the program had to be purchased for each individual computer.

Palmer joined TTLM in January, 2017. He came with a vision to cover the entire school district as soon as possible. Feria’s role in convincing the school district to purchase the Lexia program was the crucial contribution that made such a vision financially and administratively possible. Still, more money — quite a lot actually — was needed to pay for the personnel and facilities associated with an after school program. TTLM contributed $100,800 for the year ending this past June and has raised over $106,000 for the coming school year.

The program has the support of Trenton’s political leaders and the school district. With regard to the latter, the Lexia program is now embedded in the school system, with teachers using it as part of their regular classroom instruction. Students who are shown to be falling way behind are then invited to be part of the after school program. As Feria says, “These children have deep, deep deficiencies that cannot be fully addressed in a regular classroom day.”

Parents are also requested to sign on to the after school program. This approach is somewhat controversial among TTLM board members as there are some cases where parents feel their participation is not needed. Thus, while all eligible children are not in the program, all those who are have the backing of their families.

TTLM contributes much more than money. There are 13 board members and each member is assigned to one of the 13 elementary schools to act as a mentor. In that role, a board member acts not only as a teacher support but also gets to view personally the effect of the program and students’ participation.

They can also read to the students (being read to is a part of the student’s experience). TTLM president Edward Bullock’s favorite book is Dr. Seuss’s “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” “There’s a Mulberry Street in Trenton,” he says, “and when I ask the kids what has happened they all shout back: “I think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!”

Bullock is among the mentors who are able to obtain additional help for the children they are working with. In Bullock’s case, he saw to it, with the support of the Trenton Digital Initiative, that every participating second grader was given a computer to take home. This allows these engaged children to continue their reading mastery way beyond school hours.

It is gratifying to all TTLM members that there are ripples beyond the program’s goals. Bullock, for example, tells the story that one child now helps his parents read their bills. Formerly the parents had to obtain outside assistance to understand the printed materials they were receiving.

In the school year completed last June, TTLM sponsored a structured after school reading program in all second grades. The results from this first school-wide year are encouraging, Bliss says: “All participating students made substantial, verifiable progress, and the number of students working in materials at or above grade level increased more than threefold during the course of the year.”

Not described in the report just quoted is the excitement and happiness of the children and their parents at the party TTLM hosted at the end of the school year. Each child was awarded a medal, and many family photos were taken. TTLM looks forward to an even larger and more joyous celebration at the end of this new school year as well as perusing statistics that demonstrate how its program’s efforts have not only substantially increased literacy levels among Trenton’s youngest students but also brightened their economic futures.