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A critical juncture


The moment children open their eyes, they begin learning what they’ll need for the third-grade reading test.

Before their vision is completely focused, before they can grasp a rattle, and before they can sleep through the night, they are putting down the foundation crucial to their success as 8-year-old third-graders.

And those third-grade reading scores mean everything, school officials say, because after third grade, students are not learning to read—they are reading to learn.

Children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not graduate on time or to drop out of school.

In the Janesville School District, nearly half of third-graders cannot read at grade level, a situation Superintendent Steve Pophal considers a human rights issue.

Improving third-grade reading is one of the top priorities embedded in the Five Promises approved by the Janesville School Board in August 2017. The promise for “student and school success” includes “90 percent of third-graders will read at or above grade level.”

Pophal said third-grade reading is the key to success for all the other promises.

It also might be the most complicated and difficult goal.

To succeed, the district has to go beyond the school walls and beyond the boundaries of the school year.

Getting reading right

At the end of the 2016-17 school year, 43 percent of Janesville School District second-graders could read at grade level. By the end of the 2017-18 school year, those same students had finished third grade, and 56 percent could read at grade level.

“People might think that means that half of the students in third grade can’t pick up a third-grade-level book and read it,” said Allison Degraaf, district director of learning and innovation.

In most cases, they can, but literacy means more than reading, Degraaf said. The state’s third-grade English Language Arts Exam requires students to find information in stories, identify themes, compare and contrast texts, and decipher implied meanings.

On a recent morning, students in Van Buren Elementary School’s combined second- and third-grade classroom were working on as text-to-text comparisons versus text-to-real world comparisons.

They are well past the age of letter recognition and phonics.

They are also far in advance of previous generations.

A 2015 study published in the American Educational Research Journal looked at how the cognitive demands of reading text books changed from 1910 to 2000. It found that the complexity of third-grade reading text books declined in the early part of the century, leveled off mid-century but has “notably increased since the 1970s, particularly for the third grade.”

Van Buren Elementary School Principal Stephanie Pajerski has seen the changes, too.

“I’ve been an educator for 24 years,” Pajerski said. “This is about a level above what used to be taught in second grade. But the kids can do it.”

That’s true: Science has shown that kids are capable of such learning if they are given the right foundation starting at birth.

Lilly King is a good example. Lilly, 7 (“I’ll be 8 in March”), started second grade by writing a story about dolphins.

More recently, she wrote a story about a toilet that ate everything, including small children. It was a suspenseful read: Readers are introduced to the child-eating toilet in the first lines, but no one is devoured until the last chapter.

It was gross and funny—just what Lilly was going for.

“I wanted my story to be like Goosebumps,” Lilly said.

Goosebumps is a series of children’s books scary and gross with intermittent bits of humor to break things up. Educators would say Lilly was using advanced literacy skills: making comparisons between texts, using plot devices and injecting the unexpected for effect.

In another area of the combined classroom, second-grader Aiden McIntyre was working with teacher Lisa Zimmerman on fluency while reading a text about ice skating with relative ease. When asked what he likes to read, he replied, “graphic novels.”

At another table, third-grade student Elizabeth Hooser read through a nonfiction work about polar bears. She twice struggled with the word “environment” but nailed it on the third try.

“That ‘ah-ha’ moment in reading doesn’t always arrive at the same time for students,” Pajerski said.

Van Buren has an additional period every day that’s devoted to reading. Younger children who can read at higher grade levels work with older kids. Older kids who are struggling are assigned to “coach” younger ones.

“By the end of third grade, students should have the foundational part of reading down really well and be able to focus more on vocabulary and comprehension,” Degraaf said.

Outside issues

Here’s the catch: Schools can schedule all the additional reading time they want, add extra teachers and offer tutoring after school, but none of it matters unless the district addresses what goes on at home in the four or five years before children get to school.

The emotional and academic skills kids need to succeed start the moment a baby is born.

It starts with baby connecting to parent.

Deborah McNelis of Brain Insights, a company founded to to raise awareness of early brain development in newborns, infants and toddlers, described the connection in neurological terms: “… Your child will make trillions of initial connections in the first five years.”

Pophal put it this way: “That bond should get formed when a child is young, while all this (the brain connections) is going on. And when that does happen, that tends to set that child up to be emotionally healthy later on. And when it doesn’t happen, those children are set up to be a statistic around depression and anxiety.”

McNelis developed a series of flash cards to demonstrate for parents how closely children’s emotional and intellectual needs are connected.

Here’s a sample from the flash card collection “Love Your Baby: Making connections in the first year”:

  • Gently feel, rub and caress my hand while feeding me … always hold me during feedings. Look lovingly into my eyes. My brain wasn’t fully developed when I was born. Loving interaction is what I need most to help it grow best.
  • Loving me calms me: Realize that loving me does NOT spoil me. Comforting me when I need you helps me learn to trust that you will take care of my needs. I will be calmer as my brain learns I can expect you to take care of me.
  • My language development will be based on the amount of direct language I hear in the first three years. Television and video are not good ways for me to learn languages.

Those tips might seem obvious to middle-class families where parents duplicate the care they were given or are engaged in learning best parenting practices.

In economically disadvantaged homes, parents might not have access to good child care and might not have good parenting models.

By the time they are 3 years old, children from economically disadvantaged homes have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts, according to studies.

“For a child that is in a home that is a print-rich environment, for the child that’s being read to, the child that goes to the grocery store with Mom or Dad and the parents are saying to them, ‘Oh, look, those boxes of Cheerios are a gold color and there are four of them on the shelf’—that’s what’s contributing to those kids hitting those (language) benchmarks,” Pophal said.

Here’s another difference: Before they reach kindergarten, kids from middle- and upper-class families spend between of 1,000 to 1,500 hours sitting in their parents’ laps listening to them read, Degraaf said. For kids from economically disadvantaged homes, that number is about 25 hours.

As a result of differences in care and access to literacy materials, children from low-income homes come to school less emotionally and academically prepared than their peers from economically advantaged homes.

That gap is difficult to bridge.

Even if low-income children catch up over the course of the school year, middle-income children are more likely to have learning opportunities over the summer that help keep them on grade level or beyond. Many studies show that by the time children are in third grade, the academic gap between students from the two socioeconomic groups has expanded exponentially.

Wisconsin’s third-grade English language arts test is a brutal reflection of those realities.

As poverty increases, test scores go down. In Wisconsin school districts where less than 10 percent of students live in poverty, the average English language arts score is 8.6 out of 10. In districts where 10 percent to 19 percent of students live in poverty, the average score drops to 7.8.

With each 10 percentage points of increasing poverty, the Wisconsin test scores go down: 7.1. 6.8, 6.4, 6.2, 5.7, 4.6, 3.4, 3.2.

The state average overall is 6.3. In the 2017-18 school year, the Janesville School District’s poverty rate was 46.3, and its students scored an average of 7.2, which is above the 6.4 average for districts with poverty rates between 40 and 49.9.

Poverty is why the district will not reach its third-grade reading goals unless it addresses early childhood issues, district officials said.

Shortly after the district came up with its five promises, it started the Janesville Early Literacy Task Force. Its motto is “Read, Talk and Play Every Day.”

The task force has secured grants from the United Way to become a part of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The library gets a free book each month to children who sign up.

Now, the task force is raising money for its next project: Providing every new Janesville parent a bag of materials that includes two books, a bib, a rattle, information about a app they can download to track their baby’s developmental stages and a set of McNeils’ flashcards “Love Your Baby: Making connections in the first year.”

The task force has worked with SSM Health St. Mary’s and Mercyhealth System. They’ve agreed to use the materials in the book bags to help train new parents. Along with information about how to bathe their babies, parents will learn how to provide for the emotional and intellectual health of their children.

There is no money available for the project, and it cannot be funded with tax dollars. The bags and their contents cost about $30 each. Pophal has been fundraising, talking to local service groups and businesses about the issue.

Pophal acknowledged the payoff for such work won’t occur for another eight to 10 years. But for him, it’s worth it.

On a flyer advertising the task force’s work, Pophal makes his case: “Early literacy is the human rights issues of our time. Every child, regardless of their economic status, race or social standing deserves an equal opportunity to read.

“If not here, where? If not now, when?”

Anthony Wahl 

Rock County plow driver Randy Reilly removes snow from the edge of Interstate 90/39 headed toward Janesville on Saturday morning after an overnight storm blanketed the area with 5 to 7 inches of snow.

Death notices and obituaries for Jan. 20, 2019

Gary Barber

Cheryl J. Diderich

Helen J. “Elena” Foerster

Carolyn A. Guiler

Ricky Guy Hall

Timothy Joseph McCarthy

Gloria M. Michael

Edwin Lee Miller

Robert B. Roehl

Rodney Curtis Smith

Bryan Wegter 

Janesville Craig's Seve Bertagnoli, right, drives against Janesville Parker's Brody Dahlke in the first half of a Big Eight Conference game Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at Parker High.

Dems call Trump plan a 'non-starter'


In a bid to break the shutdown impasse and fund his long-promised border wall, President Donald Trump on Saturday offered to extend temporary protection for young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. But while Trump cast the move as a “common-sense compromise,” Democrats were quick to dismiss it at a “non-starter.”

Trump declared from the White House that “both sides in Washington must simply come together,” adding he was there “to break the logjam and provide Congress with a path forward to end the government shutdown and solve the crisis on the southern border.”

Hoping to put pressure on Democrats, the White House called the announcement a major step forward. But Trump did not budge on his $5.7 billion demand for the wall and, in essence, offered to temporarily roll-back some of his own immigration actions—actions that have been blocked by federal courts.

Following a week marked by his pointed clashes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it was not clear if Trump’s offer would lead to serious steps to reopen the government, shut for a record 29 days. Trump’s move came as hundreds of thousands of federal workers go without paychecks, with many enduring financial hardship.

Democrats dismissed Trump’s proposal even before his formal remarks. Pelosi said earlier in the day that the expected proposal was “a compilation of several previously rejected initiatives, each of which is unacceptable.”

Democrats made their own move late Friday to break the impasse when they pledged to provide hundreds of millions of dollars more for border security.

Seeking to cast the plan as a bipartisan way forward, Trump said Saturday he was incorporating ideas from “rank-and-file” Democrats, as top Democrats made clear they had not been consulted. He also said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would bring the legislation to a vote this week, though Democrats appeared likely to block it.

Trump’s remarks from the Diplomatic Room marked the second time he has addressed the nation as the partial shutdown drags on. On this occasion, he sought to strike a diplomatic tone, emphasizing trust and the need to work across the aisle. But he still maintained that a border barrier was needed to block what he describes as the flow of drugs and crime into the country, though he described it as a “steel barriers in high-priority locations.”

The proposal was met with immediate criticism by some conservative corners, including NumbersUSA, which seeks to reduce both legal and illegal immigration. “The offer the President announced today is a loser for the forgotten American workers who were central to his campaign promises,” said Roy Beck, the group’s president.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Trump’s offer was panned by progressive groups, with Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calling it a “one-sided proposal.”

Trump embraced the shutdown in December in large part because of angry warnings from his most ardent supporters that he was passing up on his last, best shot to build the wall before Democrats took control of the House in the new year. After his announcement Saturday, some supporters appeared unhappy with his effort to bridge the divide with Democrats.

“Trump proposes amnesty,” tweeted conservative firebrand Ann Coulter. “We voted for Trump and got Jeb!”

In a briefing with reporters, Vice President Mike Pence defended the proposal from criticism from the right. “This is not an amnesty bill,” he insisted.

Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., endorsed Trump’s plan. “Today, President Trump offered a path to end the shutdown,” Steil said in a statement. “Now, it is time for Senate Democrats and Nancy Pelosi to display a similar willingness to compromise and finally bring an end to this impasse. I am hopeful that with the president’s offer, real progress is finally possible.”

To ensure wall funding, Trump said he would extend protections for young people brought to the country illegally as children, known as “Dreamers,” as well as for those with temporary protected status after fleeing countries affected by natural disasters or violence.

Administration officials said the protections would apply only to those currently in the Obama-era program shielding them from deportation, and the temporary protected status would apply to those who currently have it and have been in the U.S. since 2011. That means people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti—countries that saw the status revoked since Trump took office—would get a reprieve.

Democrats criticized Trump’s proposal because it didn’t seem to be a permanent solution for those immigrants and because it includes money for the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which the party strongly opposes. Democrats also want Trump to reopen government before talks can start.

Meet Lt. Gov. Barnes: The other Mandela

When Wisconsin’s new lieutenant governor misbehaved as a child, it was hard for him to disappear among the other kids.

“There was only one Mandela in the crowd,” he explained.

Today 32-year-old Mandela Barnes stands apart because of more than his name.

On Jan. 7, he was sworn in as Wisconsin’s first African-American lieutenant governor, and he is only the second African-American to hold statewide office.

Barnes will be in Rock County on Monday to speak at Beloit College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Convocation.

When Barnes was born in 1986, his father named him after Nelson Mandela, who was serving a jail sentence at the time for his defiance against apartheid in South Africa.

“My dad wanted to implant his (Nelson Mandela’s) legacy as one who fights for justice and fairness in me,” Barnes explained. “My dad saw him as someone who keeps fighting in the face of adversity.”

Barnes did not realize the power of his name as a boy.

“At first, it was just a weird name compared to the other kids in class,” he said. “As I got older, I realized what Nelson Mandela stood for.”

As Barnes grew up, he saw Mandela released from prison and become the first black president of South Africa, serving from 1994 to 1999.

With the name came a lot of expectations.

“There’s a lot to live up to,” Barnes said. “I try to do the right thing and set an example. The name can be a guiding light at times.”

Last week, Barnes was glad to return to the state Capitol.

“I’m happy to be back at work for the people,” he said.

Barnes is familiar with Madison because he was elected to the state Assembly in 2012 at age 25. During his four years in the Assembly, he was chairman of the Legislature’s black and Latino caucuses.

He also served on several committees, including corrections and education.

Barnes grew up in Milwaukee, where his mother was a teacher. His father worked nights at the General Motors plant in Oak Creek. Both were active in their unions.

Barnes, who skipped a grade, started college at 16 and graduated with a degree in telecommunications from Alabama A&M University.

In addition to his time in the Assembly, Barnes worked in the office of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, for various political campaigns and as a community organizer.

One of the most inspirational people he has known was the late Vel Phillips, a pioneering Wisconsin civil rights leader who died last year.

Phillips became the first black person ever elected to statewide office in Wisconsin when she won the race for secretary of state in 1978.

“I was able to talk with her when she was still here,” Barnes said.

He was impressed by all the things she did, including being the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first woman and first African-American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council and the first woman judge in Milwaukee County.

“When people told her ‘no,’ she did it anyway,” Barnes said. “She dreamed big dreams.”

Barnes said he also hopes to make a difference.

As a highly visible African-American, he wants to change people’s perceptions of what it means to be a young black man in Wisconsin.

Barnes points out the state has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, including high incarceration rates among African-American men.

“People think of black men who are incarcerated,” he said. “I have traveled a lot in cities and towns where there is not a whole lot of diversity. The only people of color residents see are on social media.”

He hopes to be a role model, especially for people of color who have never been told that they can reach for something higher.

“When I was in the Assembly, I visited a lot of schools and talked to lots of kids,” Barnes said. “They were able to see what is possible. I hope I am able to inspire another generation to think bigger and to think outside what is the norm.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email