The pressure is on for the students learning to read in Katie Trembley's second-grade classroom at Green Central Park School in Minneapolis.

With only a few months left in the school year, every minute of reading is precious. On a recent morning, one girl quietly read aloud from a "Captain Underpants" novel. Trembley crouched near another girl who was stringing together sentences in a picture book. Trembley pushes her students, because she knows, as other educators do, that if they do not become strong readers by the third grade, they will be in danger of not graduating on time, if at all.

The focus on early literacy at Green Central reflects the Minneapolis Public Schools' all-out effort this year to boost literacy rates. Superintendent Ed Graff has declared improving literacy rates a top priority — rolling out new reading instruction materials in pre-K through fifth-grade classrooms across the city.

Minneapolis school leaders say they hope that by boosting reading skills, they will lift all other academic performance measures as well. And in doing so, they hope to attract students to a district that's long been losing kids to other areas.

"It's unrealistic to not have that desire for our students to have the skills they need as early on as possible," Graff said of his literacy focus.

This is the first consistent set of books and reading lessons the district has had in almost a decade, and while it's too early to gauge the success of the district's new materials, test score data show promise in Green Central students' climbing proficiency. On a larger scale, the challenge of teaching reading has befuddled schools in the district and statewide. Despite program changes, just more than half of all Minnesota third-graders are reading proficiently.

But other educators want to slow the process down. Jan Hagedorn of the Reading Center in Rochester works with kids who need focused help to improve reading skills and says the quick pace means kids don't have enough time to master reading basics.

"In this effort to catch kids up, I don't think we're spending the focus that we need to on the fundamentals," she said.

More than just ABCs

Before children can understand unfamiliar vocabulary, words are just letters on a page. So they get used to hearing different sounds. Then, they have to master matching sounds with letters and train themselves to learn letter names. After that, they can blend the sounds together and write them out to make up words.

It's not always easy. "The process can fall apart in a number of ways," Hagedorn said.

Once the kids master the basics, they can expand their vocabulary and decipher new passages in books. But Hagedorn said that 40 percent of all students struggle with reading and could use clearer instruction.

State education leaders want all students reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

Recent research has shown that picking the right books and lessons is a huge factor in reading success. But if the lessons themselves aren't good enough or teachers don't have the right training to implement them, proficiency will be flat.

"Two things matter most in education: what we teach and how effectively we teach it," said Johns Hopkins University Prof. David Steiner, who in 2017 wrote a study researching curriculum.

The Minneapolis school district spent months selecting its reading programs and gathering feedback from community members.

That early reaction is important, given the district's botched attempt to distribute books in 2015. At the time, the company, Reading Horizons, provided books that teachers said were laced with stereotypes. One book, titled "Lazy Lucy," pictured a black girl on the cover.

In searching for materials to teach reading, Minneapolis and other Minnesota school district officials turn to what they are convinced works: using lessons and books that reflect the diversity in their classrooms so that students feel more connected to the content.

Minneapolis school leaders soon homed in on the Benchmark Education Co. reading curriculum used in Chula Vista, Calif., citing evidence that the district saw its reading test scores rise.

In June, the Minneapolis school board voted to purchase the kindergarten through fifth-grade program from Benchmark for $9.5 million.

Reading party

On Fridays, Trembley's room goes dark for its light party.

The only luminescence comes from small finger lamps that flicker throughout the room as kids page through their books.

A few doors down, the second-graders in Elizabeth Ledesma's class are on double-time. As if being literate in English wasn't enough of a task, her kids are learning Spanish and English simultaneously.

Literacy rates at Green Central were on the rise even before the district inserted new lessons and materials into its school day. The school has made strides in its reading proficiency in recent years, surging from a third-grade proficiency rate of 8.6 percent in 2014 to 16.1 percent last year. The school's student population is 63 percent Latino and one-quarter black. Almost all students qualify for a subsidized lunch.

Below state reading levels

Green Central has a school improvement grant that allows it to dive into the data to determine the best teaching methods, according to the state education department. State officials say Green Central's numbers, while promising, are still far from the overall statewide third-grade reading proficiency of 56.8 percent in 2017.

Even though the school has doubled its proficiency levels, its low overall scores reveal that it still struggles to produce strong readers. Green Central fourth-grade teacher Molly McFadden said that she's had students who vary in reading levels from first grade to fifth grade. Teachers like her have to juggle their strategies to help the wide range of reading levels in their classrooms.

Ledesma was in her element on a recent morning. She swiftly navigated reading time and vocabulary, ending the literacy session with a read-aloud of "El Gato con Botas" ("Puss in Boots") in a cozy spot in her room. Unaware of the crunch time surrounding their reading, the second-graders parroted Ledesma, giggling all the while.

Ledesma said she sees progress and added that most of her students on the lower end of the reading spectrum eventually pick up the skills — thanks to interventions and hard work.

"By the end of the school year, you see the magic there," she said.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569