Two months ago, 14-year-old Jose Barajas was reading at a second-grade level.
But just last week he finished the first book he ever read “for fun” - “Run, Baby, Run,” a book about a runaway gangster.
And the Davis High School freshman credits the Reading Immersion Program with changing his disdain and fear of reading. It also helped him see a life outside of gangs.
“I used to think reading was a waste of time,” Barajas said. “But now that I know how to read faster and I can pronounce the words better, I’m starting to like it, especially when I can relate to the characters in the book.
“And I pick up ideas from books too, like in ‘Run, Baby, Run,’ he likes to draw and it probably sounds dumb, but now I just hang out and draw or read more than hanging with my homeboys and partying all the time.”
Barajas made it to high school barely knowing how to read, and he’s not alone. At Davis High School alone - the only facility in the Yakima School District that had actual figures - more than half of its incoming freshmen, 267 out of 441, cannot read at a high school level.
Davis educators stress the problem is not exclusive to their school. But they created an innovative program that focuses solely on reading.
“Most of these kids can read, they just can’t comprehend what they’re reading,” said veteran teacher Larry Scholl. “It may be a concentration thing or maybe they’ve never read anything that’s been pleasurable enough to get them hooked. But in here, we’re focusing on actual reading because most of these kids have never read a book in their lives.”
Last spring, Scholl pulled 41 freshmen with second-to fifth-grade reading scores out of class for three weeks and saturated them with reading materials. They read to each other, read out loud, read to him, read at home. Three weeks later, their average reading level had risen two grade levels, from a grade four rank to a grade six.
This fall, four teachers have targeted 104 students, all of whom miss three of their six classes every day to do nothing but read for 12 weeks. By mid-December, these students will be armed with 180 hours of reading experience, which educators hope will instill in them more confidence in their regular classes.
Two teachers take their students to elementary schools once a week to read to first-graders.
“Eight weeks ago my kids were considered failures in school,” said teacher Greg Hurst. “But the minute these little kids grabbed my kids’ hands, they were in control. I have some of the most hard-core kids at Davis, but these first-graders look up at my kids like they’re God, and my kids feel it.”