Editor's note: This school year, The Times embarks on a project, the first of its kind in Northwest Indiana, to follow Calumet and Hammond high schools. Each Monday, The Times will publish an account.
HAMMOND | In a corner room on the third floor of Hammond High School, a handful of freshmen choose a novel to read, another group logs onto the computer and a trio of students works directly with the teacher.
The freshmen are among fewer than 100 students in two Read 180 classes working to improve their reading skills. One morning, the teens were working to identify a story's main idea, details and sequence.
Indiana State Standards are posted on the wall so students know exactly what they need to know to pass the class.
Some of the students are just below their grade level when the arrive at Hammond's freshmen academy while others are reading at a primary level and need one-on-one attention.
Instructor Elizabeth Gutierrez brings a little humor into the classroom.
"Under what circumstances would you eat a roach?" she asked with a straight face.
"Aargh ..." most of the students replied with a groan. One student said never.
"But what if you were lost in the forest and you couldn't find a deer to take down? You didn't catch a rabbit in the trap but you looked under a rock and wow, there are a batch of roaches under there. It's good protein. You need to eat something," Gutierrez said.
As they better understood the dire circumstances the story illustrated, many of the students agreed to take a "side of cockroaches."
Comprehension is key.
"Many of these kids are really intelligent," Gutierrez said. "They just need a little more help."
A national study released earlier this year, indicated one in four eighth-grade students reads below the basic level, which sets them up for later struggles and makes them less likely to leave high school with a diploma.
In May, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report that ranked Indiana 23rd nationally for reading proficiency among fourth-graders. It also found lower scores among minority students at the important age level.
Gov. Mitch Daniels early this year proposed retaining third-graders who don't read proficiently. The proposal hit a snag because of cost concerns.
Ultimately, the General Assembly approved House Bill 1367, in part, aimed at increasing the number of children who read at level by fourth grade. It directed the Indiana Department of Education to submit a plan for increasing the number of children who attain that goal.
The department has been working on the plan since April. The State Board of Education will hold a public hearing and approve the proposed rule/plan before 2011, and it will be effective by next spring.
State officials say the plan calls for retention based on English/language arts test data. It requires scientifically-based reading instruction for 90 minutes per day and requires different interventions before third grade and after for students who need them. Schools will be required to create a reading team that reports to the state.
Theresa Mayerik, Hammond's chief administrator of academic services, said students at all grade levels can improve by reading more.
"The more you read, the more vocabulary you gain, the more you learn and the better you become," she said. "As you read, you take that prior knowledge with you.
Mayerik encourages parents to read with their children.
"When they are pre-kindergarten, sit them on your lap and read to them. That's where the love of reading starts. For older students, take them to the library, read with them and encourage them to read in the summer."