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A Voyage to Reading: Will Petersburg Follow Richmond’s Success?

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Less than half a dozen years ago, the Richmond City Public School system was the poster child for failing schools. Nearly half its third grade black students could not read on grade level, and its overall scores ranked it at or near the bottom of any state-wide list.

Since then, its disadvantaged third and fifth graders have jumped 19 and 13 percentile points, respectively, on state reading tests. Seventy-five percent of today’s at-risk third graders are reading on grade level, as are more than 83 percent of at-risk fifth graders. Reading scores tie or are within a few percentage points of the scores attained in nearby suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties.

The turn-around came from a determined administrator, fueled by financial support from the private sector, who insisted on a simple rule: Do what works in the classroom.
More than 40 years of research has demonstrated there is a science to teaching reading. In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report identifying the five key components to reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Teach all five consistently, and a child will learn to read.

But instead of explicit instructional methodology, too many school systems and classrooms work on the “do your own thing” theory of reading instruction. Programs can vary from school to school – even within the same school division or from classroom to classroom. Programs often have little evidence of effectiveness. And in the schools of education, where those who teach our students are taught, the average graduate receives only a few credit hours of coursework on how to teach reading – coursework that rarely includes the use of phonics.

Richmond City’s schools looked a lot like that in 1999, when Yvonne Brandon first came on board as the director of instruction. She found nearly 30 different reading programs being used in city schools. Few, if any, were research-based systems.

But the Voyager reading series used as a summer school component was having an impact, and when the company expanded to a year-round program for grades K-2, Brandon leapt on it as a solution to Richmond’s early reading challenges.

The decision to focus on Voyager gave her two challenges of her own: money to buy the program and resistance from entrenched teachers used to doing it their own way.
The first was solved when Verizon Communications stepped up in 2002 with a $100,000 two-year grant – one of the largest ever made by the company, which has made literacy a major charitable focus.

The other was more daunting. Some teachers felt the program to be too scripted; others didn’t want to use more options than a single textbook. But hitting bottom on the test score list can have a way of focusing the mind. More importantly, teachers began to discover Voyager was a system that worked. It offers students a daily two-hour literacy block. For part of that time there are large group lessons, for part there are vocabulary and spelling lessons and for part there is time to work on reading skills. All of it is contained in a detailed manual that teachers are required to follow.

Struggling students receive additional daily instruction and there are regular assessments to determine progress. Simply put, teaching children how to read – particularly children from at risk backgrounds — isn’t easy. And it’s not something you make up as you go along.

With the support of Richmond’s then-superintendent, the Voyager reading program is now in 18 of the city’s 28 elementary schools; 10 others use the equally research-based Houghton Mifflin reading texts.

The results have been clear: Richmond is doing a better job of teaching reading to disadvantaged students than more than 60 other school divisions.

Dr. Brandon has since risen to become Richmond’s Superintendent of Schools in large part because of the growing success of her instructional efforts.

Perhaps more importantly, her success is on the verge of being replicated elsewhere. Thirty miles to the south, more than a third of Petersburg City elementary students failed state reading exams last year.

But this year, the school system signed itself up for the Voyager program, and more than 1500 students in grades K-8 (the program has now expanded to middle school) are using the program, including nearly every student in grades K-2.  Petersburg personnel have visited Richmond’s schools to see it in action, and early indications are that the program in Petersburg is starting to have an impact.

There are more than 60,000 Virginia students in grades K-5 at risk of failing state reading exams without strong intervention. But throughout Virginia only about 14,000 of them are using a program like Voyager.

What will happen to the other 46,000?

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