In Katherine Stallings’ room, the lights are dim. A large blue table with four small chairs takes up most of the little space, along with several book shelves, pictures and a large stuffed butterfly. But it doesn’t feel cramped. It feels cozy, like the kind of place someone might want to curl up with a blanket and a book.
As she enters the room, Stallings instructs her class of four to get up and stretch.
“Touch your toes,” she tells them. “Touch your nose. Take a deep breath, bend through your mouth.”
After a few more deep breaths, it’s time to get down to business.
“OK. Let’s put our books right here,” she says.
On this particular day, they’ll be exploring a nonfiction book on honeybees.
Stallings is a reading interventionist at Ruth Upson Elementary School.
Each second-grader seated with her reads below grade level. Above them, on the wall is a little diagram, a step ladder with letters illustrating their proficiency goals.
“What are you, Mr. Mathis?” she asks a smiling little boy named Breon. “What level are you reading at?”
“K,” he replies.
“And what level is your goal?” she asks him.
“Level M,” he answers.
The four in the classroom are not alone. Nearly 70 percent of students at the Title I elementary school are one grade or more below where they should be.
“I have a lot of children come in and they know that they’re below and that they’re struggling. Sometimes with some children it creates an anger in them,” Stallings says after class.
She says she sees an average of 40 students a day in groups like this one. Her classes are small, intimate and judgment-free.
“They can come to me, and they know that they’re safe,” she said. “They know that when they’re in my group, we’re all there for a reason. We don’t make fun of each other. They know that they’re safe.”
Many students at the school struggle with outside factors like poverty. About 80 percent qualify for free and reduced meals.
Principal Terri Stahlman likens the reading program to physical therapy.
“Struggling readers don’t tell you what they’re struggling with,” she said. “They don’t know how to articulate it, so it’s the physical therapist's job to figure out what’s wrong with that child and try to help them develop those skills for mastery.”
Across Duval County, a troubling number of elementary students have yet to master reading. More than a third of elementary schools in the district rank among the state’s 300 lowest performing. With the more rigorous and not yet fully understood Florida Standards Assessment on the way, local educators say things could get worse before they get better.
“We know that our children are not reading at the levels that they need to be reading at to reach proficiency on the test, and so that’s an ongoing issue we’re working on,” said Upson Reading Coach Kim McLarty.
As a coach, McLarty has been training other teachers in effective strategies for literacy over the past decade. She is quick to point out the expectations for students are a far cry from what they once were, adding to the pressure they experience.
“Now we expect kindergartners to be reading, and back in the day you didn’t start reading until first grade, so the bar has been raised across all grades, and so some children developmentally get there before others,” she says.
A third-grader who doesn’t pass the statewide reading assessment faces the possibility of retention.
And there are further-reaching consequences. A 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found students who aren’t reading on grade level by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma.
That’s where Stallings and other interventionists come in. The small classes involve more one-on-one attention and more time. But taking on the role of a teacher, expert and counselor all in one can be daunting.
“You’re looking for someone that has a wealth of knowledge and skill at teaching reading," Principal Stahlman says. "Having the ability to work with adults as well as children is really important in the interventionist role."
It can make the position hard to fill. The district of more than 160 public schools but just 88 reading interventionists. Typically, they are concentrated in the highest-need schools.
Stahlman hired Stallings from Timucuan Elementary last year.
“Katherine came to me from another Title I school, where she had been highly successful at teaching reading in kindergarten,” she says.
Beyond the academic, there are the emotional components: dealing with the anger, low-self-esteem, discouragement. Reading coaches say it's hard work. But Stallings says the breakthroughs make it worthwhile.
She becomes emotional as she recalls a boy she worked with a few weeks ago who hated reading.
She says she told him, “I go to a quiet cozy spot and I have maybe my favorite blanket and pick up a book, and I know that it takes me other places." Stallings gets choked up as she remembers the boy's coming back to her after a while and “He was like, ‘Ms. Stallings, I know what you mean. I got my favorite teddy bear and I got a book and I can read it.’”
For her, she says it doesn’t get better than that.