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A high school confronts its reading struggles head on

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A freshman is flanked by vocabulary words at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

Fenger High School is in a rough area on Chicago's South Side. Poverty and safety are some of the school's major concerns. Reading is another.

"Well, I'm not a good reader at all," says junior Mia Weathington.

More than halfway through high school, Mia still struggles. Today, she tackles a newspaper article.

"Are rich people – I don't know that word…oh… unethical," Mia stumbles over the words and admits she doesn't know what unethical means. She also doesn't know what ethics are.

"It's like sometimes I just don't get the words. And even if I know the word, it just doesn't click with me sometimes. So I wasn't a good reader up in grammar school. I really don't pass spelling tests," she adds.

Mia has a big smile. Her teachers say she's a sweetheart and a teacher's dream. But she says her grammar school teachers didn't notice she couldn't read well.

They would ask her: "Do you want to read this paragraph?" She says she would reply, "No."

"They don't ask why – they just go on to the next person. I always said no, " Mia continues. "I was above the standards in reading and math and science. Don't know how, but I was. Most times, you ain't gotta read to know the answers to the question. I read the question, match the words up in the passage – there go your answer."

Kids enter Fenger High school at a fifth or sixth grade reading level. So, this year, principal Elizabeth Dozier is trying out a radical plan: a school-wide focus on reading.

"Reading is a fundamental right," Dozier says, "I mean, you can't really function in society if you cannot read."

Dozier's plans include sending every 9th grader to a daily, double period reading class. It's not an English class. There is no Romeo and Juliet read here. This is just a straight-up reading class.

Teacher Thomas Goodwin's room is set up like a first grade reading class might be.

Four students circle Goodwin around a small table. All their books are open to the same page.

While relaying a story about holiday spending, Goodwin asks students for the phonetic spelling of calculate.

The students sound out each syllable. Cal-cu-late.

Their textbooks deal with subjects targeted to teenagers but are written at a lower reading level, with pictures and large font.

Around the rest of the classroom, little "centers" are set up where students are reading silently or working on vocabulary or spelling on computers.

Marquis Green clicks on the words the computer tells him to find. He says the practice has helped him memorize the words.

"Because they keep doing it over and over until they think you got it right or something. I notice a difference," he says.

Mia thinks Fenger's efforts with the junior class are helping her, too. She boasts that she now reads at her grade level.

Assigning 9th graders to 90 minutes of reading – and cutting English lit to do it – is  controversial at a time when new standards are pushing schools to ramp up the difficulty of texts they give students. Dozier says it's common sense. She says it doesn't make sense to put children in English classes just because that's the curriculum most schools offer.

"It makes sense to teach the child how to read. So they can actually then – when they go into an English class or a social studies class or science or math or whatever it is – they can access what they're reading," Dozier says.

Social studies teacher Dustin Voss helps a student read a question on a class test. Voss says he realized quickly he had to figure out how to teach reading as well as social studies. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

She wants all staff to teach reading.

Economics teacher Dustin Voss is well on his way. Voss describes himself as a government and economics teacher and a reading teacher. Today, he kicks off  his junior-level class with vocabulary. His room is wallpapered with words, handwritten in magic marker, each with a definition and example sentence: entice, precarious, glutton, phobia.

Adolescent literacy experts would like more social studies teachers and science and math teachers to teach reading. There's a push to get all subject-area teachers in high schools to teach the literacy skills needed for their discipline.

But most high schools are ill-equipped to handle reading issues – especially those as severe as
Fenger's. High school teachers aren't trained in teaching reading. Materials can be hard to find. Few high schools have literacy experts on staff. Fenger has one. The former French teacher is getting a master's in reading, prompted by the need she saw.

Many students have struggled with reading for years. That can affect their view of themselves as students, it can impact their self-esteem.

Take Mia, for instance. She blames herself for her reading struggles. She says it's always been her problem.

"If I didn't understand, then I think I should have asked. But I didn't," she admits, "The teachers don't know what to tell you if you don't ask. They can't read your mind. You got a room full of 30 kids. You can't get to everybody, so I don't blame them."

Andres Henriquez of the Carnegie Corporation in New York says high school reading problems is a nation-wide issue. He adds that people aren't as aware of the problem as they should be.

Henriquez worked on a 2009 report that called for high schools to pay much more attention to reading. It said schools in poor urban areas are not the only ones with struggling readers.

"We have seen, unfortunately, that not enough high schools are actually doing anything about their poor readers," Henriquez says.

He says that's begun to change over the past several years. Fenger is just one example.

The school has folders full of student test scores that show its efforts are improving students' reading-sometimes by years. Dozier believes that as kids understand more, they'll be more likely to stick with school, and dropout numbers will go down.

But the intensive efforts haven't come soon enough for Mia. She had such a low score on her ACT, she's worried she might not get into a good college. She says she'll take the test again, and hopefully the school's efforts will help inch her upward.

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