Native Sun News: Indian students show progress on reading

At a recent Oglala Lakota Nation Education Consortium Conference, Gear Up Program Coordinator Stacy Phelps presented data showing the success of the “Reading Plus” program to educators.

‘Reading Plus’ pilot program shows great promise
New program hopes to serve all 38 Gear Up schools
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News Staff writer

RAPID CITY — A new program “Reading Plus” is in the pilot stages and promises to raise reading scores for students in the reservation schools in South Dakota.

“We’ve made it available to many schools, but ultimately we hope to serve all 38 of the Gear Up schools,” said Stacy Phelps, program coordinator of the Gear Up program. At a recent OLNEC conference, Phelps presented statistics gathered over the last two years that showed dramatic progress when the “Reading Plus” program was implemented as intended. He also noted that the program is new in the schools and in the beginning stages of data collection. “Some have been working with it for several months,” he said, and the data appears to show that it is effective.

When Phelps looked at the data from the last two summers, as well as more recent data coming in from the schools, he wondered, “Is this something that is going to work? Is it something we want to expand?”

The data seemed to answer both of those questions with a resounding “Yes.”

At the conference, Phelps showed charts where in an average of 14 sessions, fourth graders improved one-and-a-half grade levels. One high schooler jumped three grade levels but still had four grade levels to go to reach his 9th grade level. A middle-schooler gained four grade levels after 38 sessions, bringing that student to only one level below their 7th grade; and after 77 sessions, one 5th grader gained four grade levels bringing that student one level above grade level.

Phelps said, “For students who completed the minimum recommended number of sessions, 37 students gained one level, 26 students gained two levels, 30 students gained three levels, and five students gained four levels.”

However, the plan cannot be taken lightly for students to achieve success. “The students need to do this rigorously,” Phelps said. “They can’t just do it every now and again, or once a week. The best results are seen when students do the program four to five times a week, in 45 minute sessions.”

Phelps mentioned that this particular computer program is a new approach for many schools that have been working with a scripted curriculum, and he said the results are significant, especially when there are so many Native students reading as many as five grade levels below proficient.

While the program does not teach students to read, it is used as a supplement to existing curriculum. One of the benefits, Phelps said, is that it does not interfere or conflict with existing curriculum and should not impact ESEA funding. “It is an intervention program,” he said, adding that it can be used day or night, in after-school programs and even at home.

Addressing concerns that some teachers might have about being replaced, Phelps said, “Technology is a great tool but without teachers it would be an ineffective way of working with young people.”

Darla Drew Lerdal, media and communications coordinator for Gear Up said the program does not work without teacher involvement, “The kids are smart, and they can figure out how to click through to get the answer. When its teacher assisted, they stay on track.”

“Teachers will be happy to know they are still needed,” Lerdal said, adding, “The teacher’s role changes. They become a facilitator, and later, when the data about the students’ progress is released, the teacher can work with the students to understand the results.”

Describing how the program works, Coordinator Phelps said the program performs an assessment of the student’s abilities and is able to determine the student’s weaknesses and reading level. It then develops a program specifically geared to each child’s reading needs. Phelps said, “Every kid has their own reading program,” which he said would otherwise be a difficult undertaking for any teacher in an average classroom of 25 to 30 students and in these days of budget cuts.

Phelps also said the program is not simply for struggling students, but could also be used for those who may have dropped out or are preparing for their GED tests. “What’s nice is that when you have a 9th or 10th grade student who is reading at a 4th grade level, no one needs to know that. It takes the embarrassment factor away. The program is all individualized versus walking into a classroom and handing one child a third grade book of pluses and minuses while another has an Algebra 2 book, even though they are both sophomores. It removes that stigma thing, because this program doesn’t use the text books.”

According to Phelps, the Reading Plus program focuses on developing fluidity, comprehension, vocabulary and context, but the best part is that the program is fun. Phelps told school board members from Pine Ridge schools that if they offer the students an incentive, they will maintain their enthusiasm for the program.

American Horse Middle School Principal Jodi Richards said that teachers should be prepared for the students to enjoy it. She described a character that appears in the program and as each level progresses the students can choose to embellish the character with accessories. “I thought it was silly at first but the students loved it,” Richards exclaimed. “When we started our reading program last year, we gave an incentive at the end of the school year and now we are doing them more often because our kids are meeting and exceeding their reading goals.”

A similar math program is now in the works in a few of the schools. Early data is also showing strong results, but it is too soon to see if it will have the same successes as “Reading Plus.”

(Contact Christina Rose at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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