Hickenlooper’s literacy retention bill sparks long debate, passes easily

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DENVER -- Gov. John Hickenlooper testified in support of a bill aimed at improving early childhood literacy Monday afternoon and admitted that he struggled with dyslexia as a boy and was even held back a grade.

"What I remember most vividly was the sense of always being a little behind the other kids in class -- that sense of I wasn't cut out for class or I wasn't cut out to read," Hickenlooper told the House Education Committee while speaking in support of House Bill 1238.

The bill, which got a high-profile roll-out last week with a press conference attended by Hickenlooper, the Rockies mascot 'Dinger' and several dozen kids, has bipartisan sponsors and solid support from Colorado's business and education reform communities -- making it a slam dunk to get through the House and Senate and all the way to Hickenlooper's desk.

And sure enough, the bill passed the House Education Committee on a 10-3 vote just before 9 p.m. Monday night after seven hours of debate and public testimony that was at times emotional, inspiring and, above all, mostly a formality.

Kelly Brough and former Denver Mayor Bill Vidal, who head the Denver and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, respectively, both spoke in favor of the proposal, which would mandate districts not to allow third graders who aren't reading at grade level to advance to fourth grade.

"The path out of poverty is education and education starts with literacy," Brough said.

"We need this bill for the future of the Hispanic community," Vidal echoed.

But behind all the fanfare, debate continues -- even among some of the bill's backers -- about whether forcing third-graders who aren't proficient at reading to be held back is really going to move the needle.

House Bill 1238 would leave retention decisions in the hands of schools and focus on earlier intervention by teachers when a child is struggling to read; the prospect of holding that student back a year, the bill's sponsors believe, could serve as an added incentive for parents to spend more time reading to and working with their children.

"By passing this bill, you have the opportunity to change the lives of 17-thousand students each year," said Paul Lhevine, the executive director of the reform-minded non-profit Stand for Children. "It will give parents honest information about how their child is doing, and engage them as partners in getting their child on track."

But opponents, who support the bill's intention, are concerned that it's little more than window dressing, something that won't cost the state money it doesn't have and that, ultimately, won't provide real support for educators to shift to a research based model for teaching reading.

"This does nothing but punish our kids," said Elenn Steinberg, a reading specialist who has led an effort to organize those opposed to the legislation. "There is nothing about research."

H.B. 1238, sponsored in the House by Reps. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, would set up a new statewide standard called "minimum reading competency skill level" for the early grades.

Starting in the 2013-14 school year, schools would have to assess student literacy each of those years and parents would have to be notified if a student isn't making the grade. Moreover, teachers would be forced to "explain the likely consequences" -- retention -- if that student doesn't improve.

A number of young students spoke about their individual struggles with dyslexia -- and all said they would have struggled more had they endured the humiliation of being held back a grade.

"At school they say they'll teach you to read, but actually it's just a big lie," said Grady Nichols told lawmakers as his mother, seated beside him, teared up.

"It is a dead end at the school the way they teach you. And if they hold you back, it makes you feel bad and stupid. It would have crushed me to be held back. It would have been the end of the world."

Nichols and other students spoke about how they began to learn to read outside of school with the tutoring of reading specialists.

"I can read almost anything I want now and I'm very proud of that," said Uly Atkeson, 11, a student at Denver's Logan School. "What I urge you to do when you identify the kids before the first grade who struggle with reading, I want you to take them and give them the help I had.

"This will take money but it will give them the help so they do not have to have retention and feel dumb."

If the deficiency is rated "significant," the state would recommend that the student not advance to the next grade. Students who flunk would have to get enhanced reading instruction.

By third grade, students with significant reading deficiencies could not advance to fourth grade without permission from a superintendent.

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