Tag Archives: at-risk students

Reaching At-Risk Students by Establishing Strong Connections

Paul Hernandez was once an at-risk student. Now a college professor, Hernandez created “College 101: Introducing At-Risk Students to Higher Education,” to help struggling middle and high school students go from potential high school dropouts to college students. In this article, he explains how teachers can establish positive relationships with at-risk students. Want to share your thoughts on this? Subscribe to the Heinemann Digital Campus and join the discussion.

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Reaching At-Risk Students by Establishing Strong Connections

by Paul Hernandez

I grew up within the gang culture of Los Angeles, California. While children raised in other environments enjoyed life and found ways to succeed, I was trying to survive in a world of constant threat and turmoil. School was a punishment; a place to be unfairly judged and demeaned by teachers and administrators. It is difficult for people to understand how some students detest school and choose to drop out. But for me and my homeboys, these sentiments were normal. School was an obstacle rather than a source of empowerment. We were a burden to teachers who felt hopeless trying to teach us.

There are at-risk students all over the country, and they are often mistakenly viewed as a homogeneous group. They are not. They are a diverse group of students at risk for a variety of reasons. They come from diverse households—low-income, single-parent, two-parent, upper middle class. Some struggle with substance abuse, poverty, and abuse at home; homelessness or gang membership; boredom in school.

Whatever the reasons they want to drop out, it is our responsibility as educators to find a way to keep them in school. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education (http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HighCost.pdf), nearly 7,000 students drop out daily. That’s almost 1.2 million students annually. The average high school dropout earns $19,540 a year versus $46,390 a year for a college graduate. Beyond wanting to head off the economic impact of dropping out and its societal implications, we as educators have an obligation to make sure all students graduate as critical thinkers, prepared to embark on any journey or dream. Although this may seem overwhelming, it begins with a straightforward first step—connecting with students. Based on my own experience, I suggest the following:

1. The label students sometimes makes us forget that our students are people first. People just like us. Our first impulse should be to focus on our similarity, our shared humanity, rather than our differences.

2. From this foundation of shared humanity, we must acknowledge each student’s individuality. Knowing is a two-way street. For the true work of learning to begin, students and teachers must see beyond stereotypes and recognize one another as individuals.

3. People feel recognized when they’re listened to. Teachers should:

• Focus attention directly on the student (no multitasking).

• Pay attention to a student’s body language.

• Use our body language to show we’re paying attention (nod our head, encourage students to continue speaking, etc.).

• Not interrupt a student during a response.

• Show that we’re curious about a student’s perspective, reality, and experience. Instead of asking obtrusive, potentially alienating questions, we have to show our eagerness to understand how the student makes meaning. We have to come to these conversations with an appreciative lens of respect for what children value.

This list is simple, but it is not simplistic. It is based on fundamental skills that, as educators, we tend to forget during the daily grind of teaching. Nor is this list exhaustive; it is a reminder of the extraordinary importance of purposefully viewing students as people, making an earnest effort to get to know them and help them get to know us, and listening to them.

Connecting with students does not mean becoming their friend. The connections we build must reveal us as teachers—adults who have our students’ best interests in mind and offer them a safe space to learn and grow without judgment. With this focus, teachers and students can reinvent their roles, change from potential adversaries into powerful partners in a relationship in which everyone flourishes. Often we take simple things for granted, forget to facilitate the appropriate, crucial connections to foster successful relationships with our students. Often we focus on what students must learn and forget that they are insightful and extremely gifted people who have much to teach us.

The connections educators established with me helped me change from a student who detested school to one who earned a Ph.D. My experience is a testament to the potential of at-risk students and a reminder for teachers not to give up on their most challenging students. The educators who reached out to me did not expect to have an immediate impact but hoped—believed—that their efforts would affect my life long term.

Because the educators I encountered dared to go beyond traditional teaching, I am now able to live my dream every single day. Thank-you to them and to all teachers who remember that connections with at-risk students are the first step to empowering the dreamer within these students.

About Paul:

Before he earned a Ph.D. in Sociology, before his Bachelor’s Degree from a university, before his Associate Degree from a community college, Dr. Hernandez was an “at-risk” K-12 student — at risk of dropping out. Today he works with high schools, non-profit organizations like http://www.thefutureproject.org, community colleges and universities to help students at risk of dropping out. His research focuses on the sociology of education and social inequality. Contact him at hernandez.realtalk@gmail.com

Summer Reading Practices That Reach All Students

In the 5/22 blogpost, “Won’t Read Much If Don’t Have Any Books," researchers Anne McGill-Franzen and Dick Allington show how making interesting books easily accessible to children from low-income families fosters summer reading. In this article, literacy coach Darla Sarlay offers additional practices that schools and teachers can follow to encourage summer reading. Want to share your thoughts on this? Subscribe to the Heinemann Digital Campus and join the discussion.

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Summer Reading Practices That Reach All Students 

Written by Darla Salay

Last year, my school district held a Reading Buddy Picnic in September so that students could celebrate their summer-reading accomplishments and talk about their new reading goals for the upcoming school year. Students brought in beach towels from home to sit on, and they marked places in their books to prepare for their literary talk with their buddies. It took some creative scheduling, but every student was paired with a student from another grade level.

The day was near perfect. It was early fall, the sun was shining, and students were engaged in talk about books. They shared a snack, discussed favorite parts, and many sat shoulder-to-shoulder, their books between them, as they reread meaningful parts.

So why was the day nearly perfect? Because in a school district with over 1300 elementary students in grades 1–5 only about a third participated in the Reading Buddy Picnic. And that’s because only about a third brought back their summer reading log—that was the only qualification to participate.

We know from research that kids lose ground over the summer if they don’t read. And not reading especially impacts low-income students who may not catch up to their grade-level classmates once the school year begins. In our district, almost 50percent of students are low-income, so choosing not to read over the summer is a big deal.

Why is it that so many of our students are choosing not to read over the summer? And, more importantly, what can we do to engage more learners, despite their income level, to read more? We’ve begun to make some incremental changes with the hope of creating more summer readers. And now that we are collecting numbers of students who return their logs, we can begin to track whether or not more students participate each year:

Last year we: 

1. Goal Setting Day: We kicked-off summer reading last year by setting a school-wide Goal Setting Day. On this day, all students in grades K–5 set personal goals for summer reading. Teachers conducted goal setting in various ways, from modeling personal goals to encouraging students to work in partnerships to formulate goals. All students were able to share their plans in some way in the classroom.

2. Book Drive: Teachers organized a district-wide book drive to gather book donations for students who needed summer reading materials. This began in March of last year. Teachers sorted the books by level and asked all teachers to submit names of students who were in need of books for summer.  Those students got to participate in “Summer Book Shopping” under the guidance of teachers who staffed the book drive.

3. Call Home: To remind parents about the importance of summer reading, we arranged a call to all parents in early July through our “connect-ed” system. The prerecorded message discussed that reading just 4–6 books in the elementary grades over the summer can help students not only return on grade level but actually help them increase in reading skills.

4. Bookmarks: We purchased colorful bookmarks for each student and gave them the bookmark on Goal Setting Day. Students in grades 2–5 received “The Five Finger Rule” bookmark, which outlines steps for choosing a “just right book.”

This year we plan to: 

1. Broaden Reading Materials: Nonfiction feature articles or news articles will be reading options this year. We’re suggesting that students use web sites such as Wonderopolis, or Newsela for content. For those students who prefer articles, but who don’t have access to technology, we’re sending home packets of articles.

2. Research Topics: Recognizing that summer is—and should be—a time to engage in all sorts of learning opportunities, we are offering students the option to explore a topic of interest, such as “sea turtles” or “planets.” They can research and read on their chosen topic all summer long. Students will still track their reading on their chosen topic and record new learning and ideas on their reading log.

3. Get Them In the Habit: To get students in the habit of reading and logging books, students in our summer programs will be given their summer reading logs while in the program. They’ll read and log books over the course of the five-week program. Summer teachers will collect their logs and give students new ones to use for the remainder of summer. This will give these students the opportunity to participate in the Reading Buddy Picnic in the fall.

4. A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: In summer reading packets, we are including pictures of last year’s Reading Buddy Picnic. A letter will explain to parents that we would like all students to have the opportunity to participate in this special day.

5. Library Days: We have arranged Library Days, in May/June, when all of our K–2 students will visit the county library. They will receive library cards, read, and get a tour of the library.

We have already begun to think about next year. One idea is to provide summer library hours one day a week at school. A few teachers have already expressed that they will volunteer their time so that students can come in to return and check out books. In addition, we’d like to allow time for students to use digital devices to read online.

There hasn’t been enough dialogue on how to support students’ summer reading practices. We need to keep talking about how to ensure that every child reads every summer of her school career.

About the author:

Darla Salay is a curriculum supervisor in Hammonton, NJ.  She is also a former reading specialist and literacy coach with the New Jersey Department of Education. Darla has published lessons on the International Reading Association’s website: readwritethink.org. She blogs about teaching and learning at


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Won’t Read Much if I Don’t Have Any Books: Poverty, Access to Books, and the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap

In this article from the Heinemann Digital Campus, researchers Anne McGill-Franzen and Dick Allington explain the phenomenon of summer reading loss and offer practical solutions.

Won’t Read Much if I Don’t Have Any Books: Poverty, Access to Books, and the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap 
Richard L. Allington  and Anne McGill-Franzen
University of Tennessee

The other morning, as we were watching Morning Joe, cohost and former Congressman Joe Scarborough, an avowed conservative thinker, went on a rant about ineffective teachers working in high-poverty schools and about the teacher unions that “protect” them and allow them to continue working. This often repeated conservative screed surprised us if only because it is largely wrong. As Bill Gates reminded us in a New York Times article, every school has effective teachers and ineffective teachers. 

The main research evidence that critics of our schools, especially those schools serving many students from low-income families, ignore is the evidence that poor children learn as much during the school year as middle class students. Yes, research indicates children from low-income families learn as much every year as middle class kids! Yet year after year their test scores reflect a growing achievement gap when compared to those students from middle class families. How can it be that teachers in high-poverty urban schools are as effective as teachers in schools serving students in suburban communities if the annual test scores suggest an inadequate education is being provided in high-poverty urban schools?

The answer is summer reading setback. Summer reading setback is also called summer reading loss and summer slide. In any event, what we know is that any child who spends a summer without reading loses some of his reading proficiency. We also know that children from low-income families are more likely to fail to read during the summer. Middle class kids, in general, do read during the summers.

Poor kids don’t read because they own few books and live in neighborhoods where there are far fewer outlets where books or magazines can be purchased when compared to middle class neighborhoods. Finally, even public libraries in high-poverty neighborhoods are rarer and when present have more restricted hours of operation.

Couple all this with the fact that schools that enroll mostly low-income children have smaller and more restrictive school libraries and that classroom libraries are less common, and when present, have fewer books for children to borrow. What we have then is a near perfect recipe for creating summer reading setback.

Summer setback is when children who don’t read during the summer return to school behind where they were when they left for summer vacation. The best estimates provided by researchers indicate that children from low-income families lose roughly two to three months of reading achievement. Middle class children actually gain about a month every summer. 

This creates an annual gap of three to four months every year. That gap results in poor kids falling a year behind middle class kids every three years. So by third grade poor kids are a year or more behind, by sixth grade two or more years behind, by ninth grade three or more years behind, and by twelfth grade four or more years behind. You can see that gap on the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What all this means is that most school efforts at improving the achievement of low-income students have been aiming at the wrong target. It isn’t that schools with many low-income children are staffed by ineffective teachers. Instead, it is that teachers in low-income schools must produce three to four months additional growth every year compared to teachers in middle class schools, just to keep academic growth even with middle class kids. This added growth is needed to wipe out the effects of summer reading setback.

There is another option that schools should consider. We ran book fairs in seventeen high-poverty schools for three consecutive years. Randomly selected students were chosen to attend the book fair and select twelve to fifteen books to read during summer vacation. Other children were randomly selected to be the control group. The control kids did not participate in the book fairs.

We tested the children when they were in first and second grade when we began the study. After three consecutive summers we used the results of the state reading achievement assessment as our posttest. The children who received summer books performed significantly better than the control group children on the posttest.

We found that providing children from low-income families with free, self-selected trade books for summer reading eliminated summer reading setback and added a bit of reading growth (about a half year of growth across the three years). This effect was as large as the effect of attending summer school or attending a school using one of the federally funded schoolwide improvement projects! The effects for the poorest children, the free-lunch-eligible children, were twice as large.

I would explain the effects of our book distribution primarily by reference to self-teaching theory. Central to this theory of developing expertise is “deliberate practice.” This is voluntary practice and has been shown to be a powerful factor in developing expertise of many types (e.g., playing the cello, playing basketball, playing chess, and so on). In other words, children who voluntarily practice the cello will become more expert cello players than children who do not practice, even if both participate in the same cello lessons. In addition, children who practice the cello ten to fifteen hours each week will become better cello players than those children who only practice three to five hours each week.

The idea that practice develops expertise is commonly accepted by almost everyone I’ve ever explained the idea to. Even the old proverb, “practice makes perfect” reflects our understanding of the principle. 

Somehow, when it comes to reading proficiency though, it seems as if almost everyone has forgotten this principle. Consider that the Put Reading First booklet distributed by the federal agency, National Institute for Literacy, noted that rather than having students read during the school day, teachers should encourage them to read at home. But if students have no books at home, attend schools and classrooms with few books, and generally have few role models of readers outside of school, what chance is there that they will engage in voluntary reading?

In the end, educators can stimulate voluntary reading by simply making interesting books easily accessible to children from low-income families. This is a cost- effective, easily implementable, and proven school improvement strategy. Unfortunately, it is also a strategy that seems to have failed to make the school improvement agenda. It is far past time for schools to put easy access to interesting books on the school reform agenda, particularly as it’s been proven effective in closing the rich–poor reading achievement gap. 


Notes: The citation for the original research report on the summer books project and two of our recent books on implementing similar projects:

Allington, R. L., A. M. McGill-F

ranzen, G. Camilli, L. Williams, J. Graff, J. Zeig, C. Zmach, and R. Nowak. 2010. Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students. Reading Psychology, 31(5), 411–427.

Allington, R. L., and A. McGill-Franzen. 2013. Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cahill, C., K. Horvath, A. McGill-Franzen, and R. L. Allington. 2013. No More Summer-Reading Loss. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Recognition our study has earned, so far:

This study earned the research team the Albert J. Harris Award from the International Reading Association. This award is given annually for the study that best expands our understanding of reading and learning disabilities. 

The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy has awarded our study the “Near Top Tier” ranking. Noting that a second study done in a different region with different children needs to be done to earn the Coalition’s highest ranking, Top Tier Evidence. We are currently seeking funding to support such a study.