In three months, Jackie Ponce-Chacon has caught up to her sixth-grade reading level and is aiming to be a full grade level ahead by the time school lets out.

Her leap in skills is due to an extraordinary bottom-up effort by the sixth-grade team at Minneapolis' Andersen United school to reach parents to teach them how to help build their students' skills at home, from reading road signs and recipes together to talking about plots and characters in books.

Now, supporters of the reading-boosting program at the heavily Latino school are seeking the money to expand from a homegrown effort dependent on extra commitment by teachers to a district-supported pilot for Andersen's grades five through eight. They'd like to use that as a springboard to other district schools, especially those where cultural or language barriers now keep many parents from helping their students.

They particularly hope to improve scores for the fast-expanding population of students in Minneapolis and statewide who struggle academically because of the language barrier.

"I think it's fantastic," said school board member Rebecca Gagnon. "It's absolutely the right thing to do and would save us so much effort in the long run."

Extra long conferences key

Jackie's mom, Karina Chacon, found out about her daughter's lagging performance via the program, which allots up to 90 minutes for initial parent-teacher conferences. It gave her the incentive to encourage Jackie to get off Facebook and hit the books. For Jackie, it has meant a newfound interest in books.

"I read books that are interesting, like history," she said. "Last year I read books that didn't make sense, like 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid.' "

But getting parents like Chacon involved puts extra demands on teachers, and that makes the effort fragile without extra funding to sustain it, according to Lori DuPont, the team's reading specialist. The team is seeking money for the pilot effort to dedicate a teacher and a translator to work with middle-school parents.

Although the parent reading strategies can work with any ethnic group, their success with Latino students has particular resonance because they constitute the fastest-growing minority group in district schools, as well as statewide.

'It's a no-brainer'

The effort has some allies. "I think it's an awesome, awesome program," said Rubén Vázquez, who directs district efforts to involve parents and the community. "It's a no-brainer."

Seventy-six percent of participating sixth-graders made greater-than-anticipated gains in reading proficiency last year, when half of the sixth grade's 93 students got the extra help.

The idea behind the effort is that improvement begins when teachers and parents spend far more time together than the scant amount of time available at typical student progress conferences, according to another booster, Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

The longer conferences cover a wide range of information, from making sure the school has current contact information to whether the student needs glasses. But the heart of the face-to-face is reviewing past and current reading data ranging from annual state tests to more frequent in-class assessments, then developing a plan for family involvement in a student's reading.

DuPont underscores the importance of that by comparing a student's current reading level with the skills needed for such future demands as reading a drivers' manual or a chemistry textbook. They talk about the student's interests and agree on strategies for developing reading skills. They also talk about ways for the family to get involved at school, including Saturday classes that blend fun activities in areas like science with reading skills.

A better life

For Karina Chacon, the program has motivated her to encourage Jackie to use her time better so her daughter can have a better life.

Chacon, who has an eighth-grade education and cleans hotel rooms, tells Jackie to do it for herself: "It's not for your teacher's well-being. It's not for my well-being. I wish I had studied."

Andersen student Tywee Turner and his father of the same name talk about stories he's read and visit the library often. Tywee had DuPont's help last year when he was reading at a fourth-grade level; now in seventh grade he reads a grade ahead and is an honor roll student.

He now rarely runs across a word he can't sound out, the elder Tywee said. He credits DuPont.

"She calls to check on him all the time," he said. "Miss DuPont, she went beyond the teaching guidelines for helping Tywee. She was like a mother."

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