Editor’s note: This article is the fifth of a multi-part series on Stewart Elementary school, a case study for change in the San Antonio Independent School District. The students and families in this series have been assigned aliases to protect their privacy. We thank the families for allowing us to spend time in their homes and lives.


When Principal Traci Smith arrived on campus at Stewart Elementary, only 36% of her students were reading on grade level. Many of the other 64% were far behind state standards. Looking at that statistic told her just how dire things were for the students now in her charge.

While education tropes tend to list reading as just one of many “subjects” in school — “reading, writing and ‘rithmatic” — educators know that it is actually far more fundamental. It is the foundation of students’ education. So when tests are showing 64% of students with inadequate foundations, you can expect that academic struggles compounded from there. 

“You can’t build a house without a good foundation,” Smith said.

When it comes to reading, the earlier the intervention, the better. Lisa Riggs, SAISD’s senior executive director of curriculum and instruction, sees the district and citywide emphasis on pre-k as an advantage.

“We’re fortunate that we have the ability to start (literacy instruction) in pre-k,” Riggs said.

A lot of attention has been paid to the gap between kindergarteners coming from middle class household and their peers coming from low-income households. Smith doesn’t see it as a simple reading level gap. She sees many little gaps that all add up to a larger struggle.

“They come in behind the eight-ball if they didn’t go to pre-k,” she said.

Spoken vocabulary, certain phonological awareness (the recognition that words are made of distinct sounds), the ability to focus, and making symbol-referent connections (using words and pictures to express ideas) are developmental skills that can be built before a child is actually sounding out and recognizing words.

These skills are built in the child’s environment at home and at school, giving children in middle class homes and high quality pre-school settings a distinct advantage. The longer the gaps go unaddressed, the more of the child’s early school years are spent catching up. 

For second-grader Elizabeth, the clock is ticking. She is currently almost two grade levels behind, and her teachers have to decide whether or not she should advance to the third grade at the end of the school year. If she advances, she will enter the transitional year from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Third-graders take the STAAR reading test. By the end of the school year, they are expected to read directions, and begin reading to gain content knowledge for other subjects. 

Elizabeth sits underneath the table in Ms. Smith's classroom. Photo by Scott Ball.
Elizabeth sits underneath the table in Ms. Smith’s classroom. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As critical as Elizabeth’s situation is now, she’s progressed significantly in one year. When she began the year in Alejandra Lopez’s class, she was one of the rookie teacher’s most difficult students.

“She’s now at a place where she wants to do well in school,” Lopez said.

The changes Elizabeth experienced over the course of the 2015-16 school year speak significantly to the needs of students struggling with literacy. First, Elizabeth’s home environment stabilized.

In 2014, Elizabeth’s aunt Romona adopted her and her brother, Abel. Until then, the children had been bounced between cities as their mother tried various ways to make ends meet. In addition to being upset and high-strung as a result of the instability, she was never in the same school long enough to get on track in her classes, Romona said.

Romona engaged the resources available to her through the state once she adopted the siblings. She put Elizabeth on ADHD medication, which has helped her focus. When I asked Elizabeth why school felt difficult sometimes she said, “There’s a lot of things in my head.”

She made chaotic gestures with her small hands.

The medication has helped with that chaos significantly, Romona said. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement.”

Romona guides Elizabeth through her homework. Photo by Scott Ball.
Romona guides Elizabeth through her homework. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Getting students and families the social help they need is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

By contrast, Romona fears that Abel has not been able to recover from his years of volatility. Every time his mom comes around for a holiday or birthday, his aunt watches as he spirals into discipline problems and his work suffers. Romona continues to “move forward” with him, but she is often discouraged. Elizabeth’s progress has been a needed encouragement.

Smith also helped get Elizabeth into a weekend tutoring program. Focused one-on-one attention during what would be unstructured time at home doubles the impact of the tutor’s effort.

Smith, Lopez, and other teachers have also tried to get a variety of books into the hands of students, especially those who struggle. When students are reading subject matter that interests them, even if the reading level is more challenging, students will keep trying.

Elizabeth loves books about Sofia the First, a Disney princess with a bunny and a dragon as sidekicks.

Riggs said that the district’s plan for pre-k through third grade literacy is making definitive moves toward both balanced literacy – both whole words and phonics – and content-based reading. Right now reading materials are unevenly distributed across the district. Many are funded by grants, and few classrooms have a balance of subject matter to actually engage kids.

Pre-K Bilingual Teacher Ms. Godoy gives an alphabet lesson to her class. Photo by Scott Ball.
Pre-K Bilingual Teacher Ms. Godoy gives an alphabet lesson to her class. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, classrooms will have libraries with a balance of genres. Rather than more programs with disparate materials, the district will focus on supporting teachers and parents, and enriching every classroom. The goal is to put reading into context for the kids.

Teachers will help students talk about what they are reading, and what kind of books they might like to read next. They will get kids to see reading as a portal to the things that excite them.

“That’s what real reading is all about,” Riggs said.

At a basic level, Riggs wants to see constant exposure to reading in all classrooms. If reading is an accrued skill, then students need every opportunity to accrue it.

“You really want to go back to the child’s environment,” she said.

When students need intervention, Riggs wants to see differentiation – new approaches, reviewing, etc. – and instruction that makes a difference, not another program where the expectation is that you put a non-reader in and a reader gets spit out at the end.

“Are the programs that (SAISD) has previously invested in really turning around our reading?” Riggs asked. “No.”

In May, every pre-k through third grade classroom in SAISD will receive their classroom library, along with training material for teachers to help students engage the books. Balanced reading materials and more professional development for teachers is the best investment, Riggs said.

SAISD will pay for current staff members to pursue their masters of literacy through Texas A&M-San Antonio, and they will bring coaches into the classrooms to support the wide range of reading levels in SAISD classrooms.

The district hopes that with support and variety, many more teachers and parents will witness the moment a child doesn’t just learn to read, but loves to read.


*Top Image: Kindergarten students Mariah and Adele work on a classroom station based reading exercise. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Stewart Elementary: The Ticking Clock of Literacy

Stewart Elementary: The Hidden Talents of Low-Income Students

Stewart Elementary and The Gifted and Talented Dilemma

Stewart Elementary: A Case Study for Change

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.