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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Sala Udin has spent a lifetime fighting for equality, but now says he faces his biggest crisis, a generation of school children who can’t read.

“We have to act quickly, these kids are depending on us to save their lives,” said Udin, a Pittsburgh Public Schools board member. “For them, it’s a matter of life and death.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools spend tens of millions of dollars each year trying to improve their reading scores, but the results have been appalling.

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At Weil Elementary in the Hill District, 75 percent of the kids are still not reading at proficient levels, and while some the students are reading at basic levels, others can’t read at all. Disturbingly, Weil is performing better than almost every other African-American school.

Across the neighborhood, at Miller K-5, 87 percent can’t read proficiently, and at Pittsburgh King PreK-8, on the North Side, that figure is 89 percent.

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The impact can be disastrous.

According to studies, including one by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, if a child doesn’t learn to read at a proficient level by third grade, he or she will fall behind and will likely never catch-up, and are “all too likely to become our nation’s lowest-income, least-skilled, least-productive, and most costly citizens tomorrow.”

“They will struggle through school. They’ll be suspended, they’ll be expelled, they’ll be more likely to be involved with drugs, and prison and premature death. That’s the path, and that’s what’s at stake,” Udin said.

Minika Jenkins is the district’s chief academic officer.

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “You’re not satisfied with it?”
Jenkins: “No, I don’t think anyone is satisfied with our proficiency numbers.”

The district is currently spending $31 million a year on so-called professional development to help teachers achieve better outcomes. That includes $7.6 million a year for 60 academic coaches, one for each school.

Just last year, it spent another $4 million to acquire and adopt a new reading curriculum called ReadyGen.

While some schools, like Weil, have seen modest improvements, others have not.

Sheehan: “Your numbers show that what you’re doing is not working.”
Jenkins: “We saw that. We saw that what we were doing wasn’t working. So, again, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Udin finds fault in the new curriculum or at least the way its taught.

ReadyGen uses a blended approach to teaching, traditional phonics, where the student learns to combine letters and sounds with meaning, and sight learning, where they associate a word’s meaning with a picture, such as a picture of a horse next to the word horse.

While the district says there is equal use of both methods, Udin says there’s a heavy reliance on sight words, which, he says, have not worked.

“A kid has to be able to look at a word and recognize the sound that each letter in that word represents, and understand how those sounds come together to form a word. If they do that, they don’t need pictures,” he said.

Across the district, white students perform much better, at Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill for instance, more than 80 of white students are reading a proficient levels.

The racial achievement gap is widening.

“We have to be able to say we educate all students and we position all students to thrive, and we’re not doing that right now,” says literacy expert Sarah Scott.

Scott says the district is failing its minority students. While she says phonics should be the bedrock of all reading instruction, the problem is deeper. Teachers need intensive training on how to teach reading, a very specialized skill.

“We should be treating this as the most important problem we need to attend to. We need to think really strategically of how to address the needs of all students,” Scott said.