How a mentoring program aims to raise the reading level of Texas students

DALLAS (Nexstar) – Texas students lag behind in the classroom, especially when it comes to English and literacy skills.

According to newly released results from this year’s STAAR exams, about half of Texas students met the English I grade level standards. About 60% met the English II grade level standards.

Those numbers weren’t upset by the pandemic, as results for the 2020-21 school year stayed “broadly constant,” according to the Texas Education Agency. However, the gaps still equate to thousands of Texas hundreds of thousands of students falling behind.

That’s why the Barbara Bush Foundation aims to fill these gaps through its peer-to-peer mentoring program called Teen Trendsetters, which has been around for 20 years. Middle and high school students are paired with younger students from grades 1 through 3 who are reading four months or more behind their grade level.

Students who cannot read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out, according to a long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

British Robinson, the President and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation, said the “special ingredient” in the Teen Trendsetters program is peer mentoring.

“Year after year, independent evaluations have shown us that the mentors also win. They gain confidence, they gain the ability to see themselves as a lawyer or a doctor,” she said. “That confidence that they gain is what propels them through school and makes them want to stay in school, get their high school diploma, and then usually go to college.”

Currently, Teen Trendsetters has 10 active programs in four different Texas school districts. Within these programs there are almost 200 mentees and 125 student mentors. Each program is supervised by a volunteer educator. Cathy Kazyaka is one of these educators and has led the program in Dallas-area schools for the past five years.

“If I want my students to do well in high school, we’d better start building that foundation in elementary school,” Kazyaka said.

Kazyaka, who is also a high school teacher, said her Teen Trendsetter students started at least six months behind where they were supposed to be reading last fall.

“It just saddens me that we kind of let kids fall through the cracks,” Kazyaka said.

Robinson said Texas ranks 48th out of all 50 states for low adult literacy, often a byproduct of children not learning to read early enough or because of adults learning English as a second language. For students, the national average is about 40% of all students not reading at grade level.

“It affects every aspect of our lives. It’s a social issue. It’s an economic question. It’s a question of justice and it affects several generations,” she said. “When one of us suffers, we all suffer and we can’t leave anyone behind because of low literacy in America.”

She hopes her nonprofit can expand programs like Teen Trendsetters to more school districts in Texas, and cites funding as the biggest obstacle. The other aspect is reaching out to school districts, which she says is made easier by providing evidence of the effectiveness of the program.

“It also has an incredible spillover effect,” said Robinson. “There are not many tutoring and mentoring programs. That’s different from our Teen Trendsetter program… its specialty is mentoring.”

A five-year analysis of the program showed that after seven months in the program, mentees had achieved a grade level or above in reading. The study showed that progress was 56% greater than would be expected for the average student over the same period.

“By the end of the program bringing up these points I literally have tears in my eyes. Because not only has every student made progress, but with every student you will see that their score has doubled, sometimes even tripled. It’s crazy,” Kazyaka said.

Kazyaka receives a small stipend on the program for the extra hours she volunteers leading Teen Trendsetters in addition to her work as a high school teacher. Her students met once a week, and the high school mentors would come in before their classes for the day began. Each child is accompanied by the same mentor throughout the year.

“That relationship building was tremendous. The Teen Trendsetters program has brought some normalcy. It provides structure,” she said. “They know there will be a reading buddy there on Friday morning to look forward to.”

How is the program funded and supported?

As a nonprofit organization, the Barbara Bush Foundation receives funds from grants and donations. Robinson wanted to commend the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, which has been a partner of theirs for 20 years. In April, it donated a $1.6 million grant to implement an adult literacy action plan.

In general, Robinson said the field of literacy gaps is very underfunded and underexplored.

“Often money goes into tutoring programs, but maybe not necessarily into mentoring tutoring programs and then into programs that actually support the parents,” she said. “This is a kind of parent engagement program for real family literacy.”

“The donors who give to this program are truly life changing. We build home libraries for children who could never have a home library. We build a parent connection because each book comes with a parent’s guide that parents can read to them,” Kazyaka said. “It’s just a great opportunity to connect with the community.”

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