Deivi Santizo remembers what it was like. She came to America from Guatemala with her family when she was only 4. When she started school, her lessons were in English — not her native Spanish.
“I struggled a lot with reading,” Santizo said. “Some of the words were very hard. It's not my language.”
But she worked hard, pressed ahead and now teaches elementary students. This summer, she spent time with children who reminded her of herself: a struggling reader.
“Never give up,” Santizo said. “That's what I want them to understand.”
The Oklahoma City school district, like many districts across the state, is giving extra attention to young children who can't read well. This summer, the district hosted a free, two-week reading camp for students who will be in third grade this fall.
This coming school year will be key for those children. This is the first group to be affected by a new law that requires third-graders to read on grade level, or be held back.
In Oklahoma City, about half of third-graders aren't reading on grade level.
“A lot of remediation right now is the key to these kids reading on grade level,” said Teri Brecheen, executive director of literacy and early childhood education for the state Education Department. “... I hope for the children's sake that the districts are doing the reading research and doing the correct intervention.”
With the right intervention, as many as 98 percent of children can read on level with their peers, Brecheen said.
Third grade is a turning point for many students, she said. Nearly all children who aren't reading with their peers by that age will never catch up.
There will be some wiggle room for children with special needs. The law allows for six exemptions, such as disabilities.
But most students who are behind will have to catch up.
Oklahoma City officials are planning interventions throughout the year for students who are behind, said Pat Hunt, executive director of elementary education.
But one of the solutions was the summer camp.
At Heronville Elementary, Santizo paced quietly around student desks. They were working on vocabulary.
“Put it in your own words,” Santizo said. “What is a characteristic of your body?”
A girl with silky black bangs and a long braid over her shoulder thought a moment. “Brown eyes?”
“Brown eyes — very good,” said Santizo, who normally works at Westwood Elementary during the school year.
Students from throughout the district came to five hub elementary schools: Columbus, Heronville, Lee, Stand Watie and Van Buren.
They talked about sequence of events and cause and effect. They focused on things like phonics and vocabulary. Everything was couched around American heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.
They had homework every night, and they did it. They checked out books to take home and read.
Santizo said the teachers are honest with their students: If you can't read on grade level next year, you can't move on.
So the time for encouragement, progress and learning is now, she said. They must have confidence to catch up.
“Some of them shut down because they can't understand,” Santizo said.
Enrollment at the five camp sites varied between more than 500 to about 650 each day. Pre- and post-camp tests showed students generally improved and some were bumped across the magic line of proficiency.
Before camp, about 5 percent of the struggling readers were considered proficient. After, about 13 percent were.
“That will help those students be more proficient and have more confidence,” said Wilbur House, executive director of curriculum development for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Officials already are looking to next summer and hoping twice as many kids come. They may add more time per day or more days total. The camp also might move to the weeks preceding the start of school.
The law puts pressure on teachers and administrators to get it right for students, House said.
“You performance in reading is a direct indicator for your performance in school,” he said. “ ... The pressure should really be on the teachers because we have to do a better job to help these students learn to read.”