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Sessions wants to expand school reading program

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions said Alabama's elementary school reading program is making great strides and it's time for Congress to help Alabama and other states expand successful reading initiatives to higher grades.

Sessions, R-Mobile, said Wednesday he will introduce legislation to expand the federal Striving Readers program from a few cities to a nationwide pilot program for students in grades 4-12.

Sessions, who is married to a former teacher, said 70 percent of middle and high school students nationally read below grade level, creating frustration that causes too many to drop out.

Turning them into successful readers will help keep them in school, he said.

"The Striving Readers Act marks an important and urgent investment in the older student," he said at a news conference where Gov. Bob Riley and top state education officials endorsed his legislation.

The federal Striving Readers program began in 2004 as a demonstration project. In 2005, President Bush requested $100 million in funding, but Congress cut it to $25 million, citing a lack of resources.

For the most recent budget year, it received $29.7 million and was used in eight cities, Sessions said.

Striving Readers is patterned after the federal Reading First program, a $1 billion effort that is used in grades K-3 to help boost reading scores in low-income and low-performing schools nationwide.

In Alabama, it's used in 94 schools, where the number of students reading at grade level has gone from 29 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2006, Sessions said.

To implement Reading First, those schools use the Alabama Reading Initiative, a state-designed reading program that has won national praise and is now in all K-3 schools statewide.

Federal money

The federal Reading First money allows the schools to add an extra reading coach beyond what the state supplies and buy more reading materials.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said Alabama students now in middle and high school passed through the early grades before the Alabama Reading Initiative was available statewide, and they need help improving their reading skills.

"This program closes the loop on how to address that need," he said.

Sessions said he would like to begin with $200 million in annual funding and increase it by that amount each year until it reaches $1 billion in five years.

Riley said Alabama couldn't afford to put the Reading Initiative in all grades, so the state, which is spending $56 million this year, decided to focus on K-3. He said the success at that level shows the need for a program covering higher grades, and new federal funding would be appreciated.

Sessions said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will co-sponsor the Striving Readers legislation with him.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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