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PHOENIX -- Beginning this school year, nearly 3,000 kids in Arizona are at risk for failing third grade because of a new state law.

The Move On When Reading act was passed in 2010 and has toughened the reading and literacy standards required to pass third grade.

Those standards have been determined by the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test, also known as the AIMS test, which has seen about 3,000 students statewide score well below target levels in reading and literacy.

Of those 3,000 kids, nearly 1,000 are in Phoenix and the challenge of preparing this year's incoming third-graders has been demanding.

Some schools in Phoenix began last week while others will begin up until Aug. 5.

"The City of Phoenix is really taking a look at that to see how we can assist the schools. To really infuse academic-based learning, [and] intensive tutoring in our programs," said Tim Valencia, the youth and education program manager with the city manager's office, "so we're really looking to see how we can help our Phoenix school districts."

Third grade has long been considered a turning point in the development of a child's education, and competence in reading has closely been linked to the success rate of a student's educational future.

"In grades K, first and second, students are learning how to read, phonemic identification and how to blend words," Valencia said. "Starting in subsequent grades, like fourth grade, they start reading to learn."

Valencia said that if students are having difficulty in reading or deficiencies by the third grade, research shows the learning gap increases as they move on and are more likely to drop of out school.

Valencia said school districts within Phoenix have been required to develop literacy plans, and those plans must be approved for schools that are considered underachieving in their academic performance. The performances of schools are based on letter grades A through D, much the way students are given grades in class.

Valencia said in order for schools and districts that are considered in good academic standard to receive portions of the $40 million allocated by the state legislature for Move On When Reading, they must submit literacy plans every year.

But for those schools and districts considered to be underachieving to receive a portion of those funds, they must not only submit literacy plans yearly but must also have those plans approved.

"If [a school] scores a C or below, [the] literacy or reading plan has to be approved by the Department of Education to tap into these dollars," Valencia said. "Districts are tapping into these dollars to have reading specialists at every school, [or] to have additional resources to bridge that gap."

Schools have also been required to provide additional help to struggling students outside of normal school hours.

Schools must make available summer learning and reading programs, online programs and other interventional-style programs to help minimize a student's risk of being held back.

While school districts around the state have had two years to prepare for the adjustments, Valencia said now is the time to focus on parental and community involvement to help ensure kids are meeting the new standard.

"I think the most critical piece to this is the parent engagement piece," Valencia said. "What parents can do at home, or even what programs like Boys and Girls Clubs, or City of Phoenix programs can do to help out-of-school time, I think that is where some of the missing links are."

Parents taking the time to read with their children, or beginning to build home libraries with their kids are ways that Valencia suggests can help students become better and more interested readers.

Valencia said to help encourage that community and family involvement, Phoenix has set up ReadOnPhoenix.org and also put together informational public events.

On Saturday, hundreds of families gathered at a free event at Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix geared towards preparing children and their families for the upcoming school year.

In conjunction with the Latino Institute, the City of Phoenix organized the event, which featured school-supply giveaways, raffles, and panel discussions.

Cindy Daniels, with the Arizona State Board of Education explained some of the law's stipulations and requirements. Daniels said there are two important exemptions to the law that requires students who read well below the AIMS standard to be held back.

"The first exemption, where they cannot be held behind, is if they are a special education student and their IEP [Individualized Education Program] has written in there that [the student] is having difficulty in reading or language," Daniels said.

"The second one is if they are an English-language learner and have had less than two years of English- language instruction."

These exemptions, according to Valencia, will reduce the number of those held behind nearly in half. "The Department of Education is saying there is probably around a thousand or 15-hundred [exemptions] statewide," Valencia said.

Proportionally, that brings the number of at-risk students for being held behind in Phoenix to about 300 to 500 kids, Valencia said.

Daniels said that the law does not allow for an appeal if parents believe their child should not have been held back or should have qualified for one of the exemptions. But if a child's scores improve through summer school or online learning, "then you can go back to the principal and ask them relook at his [or her] scores over the summer to see if they decide to go on."

During the upcoming school year student's reading abilities will be closely monitored, and Valencia said schools are required to notify the parents of kids who are struggling or at risk of being held behind.

Schools will send letters to parents notifying them that their child is falling behind, to which Valencia said it is vital that parent immediately contact their school to find out what options are available.

More than likely schools will increase their intervention during school hours, Valencia said, by increasing the amount of time the child receives instruction. Schools will also provide parents with tips on how they can help their child at home.

Valencia said many of these tips and other resources can be found at the website.

Mark Remillard,

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