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Mayor Andy Berke delivers his second State of the City address at The Chattanoogan hotel in this file photo.
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How Lexia works:

Lexia Reading Core5 is a computer-based reading program that focuses on six skills of reading for students pre-K through 5th grade. Older students and adults can also use the program. When students sign up, Lexia places them on grade levels based on their reading ability. As students complete units, comparable to lessons, they move up in levels. If a student gets stuck on a lesson, the program is designed for one-on-one instruction with a teacher until the student comprehends the lesson and can move on. If a student completes what Lexia considers a grade level of work, the student is considered on target to finish the year reading on grade level.

A Chattanooga-funded reading program, touted as a success by the mayor and poised for expansion, isn't producing the results claimed by City Hall.

In Mayor Andy Berke's annual state of the city address this year, he said: "More than 4,000 kids are actively participating in our Youth & Family Development Department's reading initiative all around the city. And 50 percent of those young people are reading at or above grade level."

Yet the mayor's office isn't telling the whole story, according to data analyzed by the Times Free Press and interviews with officials who helped create the computer-based reading program, Lexia Reading Core5.

While the mayor's office says 50 percent of the Chattanooga children active in Lexia this school year are reading at grade level, the data show that many students have done only minimal work on grade level and are nowhere near the 80 to 100 percent completion mark that indicates a child is ready for the next grade.

Lexia officials say doing some work on grade level does not mean a child is reading on grade level. Lexia ranks students' progress toward grade-level comprehension; elementary-age students are designated "high risk," "some risk" and "on target." Student labeled "on target" are considered to have mastered their grade level and are ready to progress, said Rachel Schechter, a senior research manager at Lexia.

And those rankings paint a different picture from what the mayor has claimed. In March, of the nearly 4,000 active elementary students only 13 percent were labeled "on target." Eighty percent were "high risk," the data show, meaning their likelihood of finishing the year on grade level range from only 1 percent to 30 percent.

The mayor says the city chose not to emphasize Lexia's rankings and instead is focusing on other numbers that show students have made small strides. He also said he doesn't see much difference between working on material on grade level and reading on grade level.

"It sounds like semantics," Berke told the Times Free Press. "Our concern is, are we getting kids to progress?"

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Funding education in the city budget was one of a handful of pledges Berke made when he was elected mayor. But the idea to put Lexia in the city's recreation centers was introduced by Berke's predecessor, Ron Littlefield. Under the city's gang task force, which Berke later disbanded, the city had implemented Lexia at the Carver Recreation Center with a $5,000 donation from the Miller & Martin law firm.

In 2013, Berke proposed spending roughly $500,000 to buy computers for the center and three-year licenses for Lexia; to hire academic coaches who also help students with homework, and to pay a literacy coordinator and hire an education administrator. (City officials say the coordinator and administrator's duties expand beyond Lexia.) Lexia would be put in the centers and at Hamilton County schools and after-school programs on request.

It's important because more than half of Hamilton County students can't read on grade level, Berke and his staff have said.

"Rather than only providing a field or a gym to our young people, we will expand the Lexia literacy program, a proven method to help kids read at grade level," Berke told the City Council in 2013.

Behind the scenes, doubts about Lexia and its effectiveness have grown. Miller & Martin, an initial Lexia donor, chose to stop funding the program this year. Hamilton County Schools decided not to use the software in the upcoming school year because they said it doesn't align with the students' reading curriculum. And three members of the City Council have begun asking questions.

The Times Free Press reviewed the rankings every student received when starting Lexia — which accounted for students who have been active at any point during the 2014-2015 school year — and compared them to the students' most recent ranking in April.

That data showed that few students are ready to progress to the next grade.

Of the 4,850 elementary students who signed up for Lexia and were given an initial ranking in this school year, only 32 progressed from a "high risk" of not reading at grade level by the end of the school year to "on target" by April. Another 121 students went from being classified as "some risk" to "on target."

More than 200 students who started the program "on target" began to do worse and are now classified as "high risk." The remaining 2,973 students started at "high risk" and remained there. Almost 520 students did not have their initial rankings recorded by Lexia, data shows.

Still, city officials say they consider the program a success because students are making marginal improvements. Many children who sign up are multiple grades behind, said Kimberly Stewart, the city's literacy coordinator. A student who goes from being three grades behind to one grade behind should still be considered a success, she said.

After the Times Free Press raised questions about the numbers, city officials sent a report generated by Lexia that showed how some students were able to begin doing some material on their own grade level. For example, the report said, of 783 second-graders, 66 percent started the school year working below grade level; by the end of April, 42 percent were doing grade-level material, a 10 percentage point increase, in rounded numbers.

Berke said he has seen many examples of children progressing. He pointed out that of 42 students using Lexia in ninth grade, 34 started the year reading on a first-grade level. Now only 18 students are still reading on a first-grade level.

"None of those kids are likely to be reading at grade level, but that's still progress," he said.

City Councilman Larry Grohn said when he started asking the mayor's office questions about Lexia, they were not welcomed.

When Grohn asked City Hall staff for Lexia data, explaining that he wanted the information before voting on the upcoming budget, he said Berke Chief of Staff Travis McDonough tried to discourage him and the rest of the council from seeking additional information.

"You have exhibited a recurring interest in this topic of late, and your criticisms and observations of our implementation of Lexia seem to be rooted in a basic misunderstanding of how Internet-based software works and what our public servants do on a daily basis," McDonough told Grohn in an email.

"Do you have any valid concerns with Lexia underlying your questions that we should know about?" McDonough asked.

Grohn said the city then locked him out of the online Lexia report card, to which he had been given access to monitor students' progress.

Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone said the mayor's office has been transparent, holding a meeting to brief members on Lexia and to answer Grohn's questions. But Grohn said based on his experiences trying to get access to information, he believes the council isn't getting an accurate look at Lexia.

"When you look at the data, the [mayor's office] is not telling the whole picture," Grohn said. "They're only using the barest of reporting."

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Several people who work with Lexia at the city's recreation centers, but who didn't want their names used for fear of losing their jobs, said they think Lexia is not producing results because it isn't being managed well.

They say they face mounting pressure to sign kids up and increase enrollment numbers, but not as much focus is on working with children individually and helping those struggling to improve.

"It's very hard to manage the kids," said a part-time worker at an inner-city center. "The only way it's going to work is if there is something on site, on hand that can be an immediate reward."

Students need incentives to complete their work, administrators and volunteers said. When the buses drop them off at their recreation centers after seven hours at school, kids want to play basketball or run outside on the playground. The last thing most children want to do is go back inside and sit in front of a computer.

City officials say they have spent nearly $700 to reward students who complete their work, throwing pizza parties and giving out small prizes. Officials are looking at more ways to encourage students to use Lexia.

Berke said the city's intent is for Lexia to reinforce what children are already learning in school, giving them another chance to catch up.

"Obviously, we're not a school system. What we try to do is add a reading supplement to what is already being taught," he said. "My number one goal here is to help supplement what's going on in schools."

The Times Free Press analysis of the numbers show most students don't meet Lexia's recommended usage time to improve their reading skills.

About 437 students used Lexia only once, when they signed up for the program. Another 835 used the program less than an hour throughout the year. More than three-fourths of the students in Lexia, or 4,772 students, didn't meet their recommended usage online, the newspaper analysis shows.

Only 1,175 used Lexia for the recommended time, which varies from 15 to 100 minutes a week depending on the student's reading level.

City officials say rec center computer labs have limited capacity and students have to take turns on the computers. Some kids may not get the time online that Lexia recommends, but the city is trying to ensure all have the same opportunities to learn, said city Chief Operating Officer Brent Goldberg.

Earl Whittaker, who helps head a reading and math program at Tyner United Methodist Church, said the low participation could explain why most students in the program aren't getting better at reading.

At his church's after-school program, all but four students will be reading at grade level by the end of the program, he said. It's all about consistency, Whittaker said — the 24 children in his program spend 30 minutes a day for four days a week on the program.

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Lexia also tracks how many units — the equivalent of a lesson, with 10 to 20 questions — students complete to show the program's success. In March students finished 93,305 units, the second-highest number of monthly gains since the program began.

Yet many of the major gains throughout the year were made by a few students.

Only 13 students were among the top performers, completing between 600 and 900 units. Forty-three percent of all the students, or 2,660, completed less than 50 units throughout the year.

Some teachers at schools and after-school programs said the program was a great tool to fill in the gaps where students fall behind. Others said they were disappointed with the results.

At Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, 80 percent of students are reading below grade level. Principal Cherrye Robertson said she enrolled her second-grade classes in Lexia last school year, but she didn't see the results she wanted at the end of May 2014.

This school year she decided to use the program in her kindergarten classes, to see whether children on a lower reading level benefited.

"We'll see what the data shows," Robertson said, before she decides if she will use the program again at her school. Those figures are expected to be available sometime this summer.

While the Tennessee Department of Education is pushing the school districts to use computer-based programs to support education, Hamilton County Schools administrators say Lexia isn't the right program.

Literacy Coordinator Becky Coleman said the school system doesn't think Lexia supplements what students are being taught in class.

She said the school system has selected a different program to introduce to struggling readers in the fall — a program she said is based on teaching students who have fallen behind, similar to the teachers' current strategy.

"It's not just a game [like Lexia]," Coleman said. "We're trying to align what's happening in the schools to what is happening outside the schools."

It's not a surprise to one expert and national critic of computer-based reading programs that Chattanooga isn't seeing widespread success with its literacy program.

Lexia says its reading programs were in the 10 that show some positive effects on students among 171 rated by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

But Richard Allington, a University of Tennessee professor and a past president of both the International Reading and the National Reading associations, said the same rating system found Lexia potentially could help students with alphabets and reading comprehension. The study found the program didn't have any effect on students' general reading achievement or reading fluency.

Only rarely do such programs show kids actually improve their ability to read, Allington said, comparing the online program to a workbook lesson. Kids would be better off reading books, he said.

"It's a waste of kids' time and a waste of taxpayer dollars," he said.

Still, the city said Lexia is worth additional funding.

Jason McKinney, the city's deputy administrator of education, said the city wants to buy more software licenses for schools and after-school programs to expand the program, funded in part through a $150,000 donation this year from United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

"There is such a need throughout the city to improve literacy," he said. "This is one tool that we have found that we can outreach throughout the city to improve literacy."

City Council members are slated to vote in June on a 2016 city budget that will likely include a $27,900 Lexia expansion.

Times Free Press data analyst Paul Schulz contributed to this article by analyzing the city's Lexia data.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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