HARTSELLE — Before Hartselle City Schools adopted a reading intervention program for special needs students, Nathan Hensley said he disliked school.
Now, he’s borrowing books from his teachers to read at home and is one of the reasons Hartselle is posting some of the best ACT Aspire reading scores in the state.
Hartselle is piloting Fast ForWord — a neuroscience-based reading program designed to improve memory, attention, processing and sequencing — for a select group of students at F.E. Burleson Elementary, where Hensley attends school.
That’s one reason Hartselle has a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding state reading standards among the six public school districts in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties.
“Essentially what we’re doing is having students retrain how their brains read,” said Dee Dee Jones, the district’s director of teaching and learning.
At Burleson, where the reading intervention program started almost two years ago, reading scores for special needs students improved by 25 percent in one semester.
Resource teachers Tara Hamlett and Nicole McDonald said they were stunned with the results.
“We could see the improvements, but we did not expect this,” Hamlett said.
Crestline Elementary added the program a semester later, and students showed a 16 percent increase in reading scores, while Hartselle Intermediate had a 12 percent gain.
Hartselle’s gains came while the majority of students in the six public school districts in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties continued to score below state averages in most grade levels and at just about every indicator.
Slightly more than 60 percent of Hartselle’s fourth-graders, for example, met or exceeded state standards on ACT Aspire reading, compared to only 42.8 percent statewide.
Unlike the state’s old standardized test, ACT Aspire results include special needs students.
“It’s our job to get every student, regardless of their ability, college or career ready,” Jones said.
Hensley, a third-grade student at Burleson, was one of the first students to enroll in Hartselle’s new reading intervention program.
“I was considered a struggling reader,” he said.
Two years ago, Hensley said he disliked school because he read only 13 words per minute. By the end of the program, Hensley said he was reading 79 words per minute and could understand what he was reading. He now is classified as a proficient reader.
“I started borrowing books from my teachers to take home and read,” he said. “School started being fun for me because I was reading like the other children in my class.”
Fast ForWord requires every special needs student in Hartselle to spend at least 30 minutes per day with the online reading program. Hamlett said the district assessed every student to determine where they need to start with the program.
Realizing tougher standards were coming for all Alabama students, special service coordinator LeAnne Pettey said Hartselle formed a reading task force two summers ago for special needs students.
“We just started looking for something and settled for Fast ForWord,” she said.
F.E. Burleson students piloted the program for the district during the first semester of the 2014-15 academic year, and there was a 25 percent increase in students’ reading abilities.
A $41,000 grant is allowing Hartselle to give every special needs student in the district access to the program this year, Pettey said.
So far, Hartselle has reports to show increases at Burleson, Crestline and Hartselle Intermediate.
Pettey said she is committed to making sure every Hartselle student can read when they leave the school system because she is haunted by something that happened in 1997. She said one of her special education students came to her and said he had been in school for years and still couldn’t read.
“This student has been in trouble with the law and that haunts me,” Pettey said. “If students leave us and can’t read, we have failed them.”