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New Coach in the Race for Literacy

Mel Riddile prepares for his first year at the helm at T.C. Williams High School.

One day not too long ago, Mel Riddile had one of those “ah-ha” moments. He was principal of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church at the time, and the copy machine was broken. When the repairman arrived, Riddile was shocked to see a man in his 50s.

“I want to retire, but I can’t,” Riddile said the repairman told him. “Because these kids can’t read the manuals.”

For Riddile, the chance encounter with a copy-machine repairman confirmed something he already believed to be true: students need to read better. In a global economy that is becoming increasingly technical, Riddile says, literacy skills will become the next battlefield for educators. Sitting in his new office at T.C. Williams High School, where he took over on July 1, he goes over a reading chart that tracks various levels of literacy.

“Kids that are at 1200 could easily be at 1500,” Riddile said, moving his finger from one part of the chart to another. “It’s a myth that people perform according to their ability. It’s not about ability — it’s about work and effort.”

Riddile’s chart, known as the Lexile Framework, has a scale for matching reader ability and text difficulty. A 1200 reading level corresponds to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” while a 1500 reading level would be closer to Hippocrates’ “On Ancient Medicine.” Riddile says that most students’ scores are well below where they should be — and that raising the scores is the best way to improve opportunity.

“It’s an equalizer, and it levels the playing field. Without these skills, students will be relegated to dead-end jobs,” Riddile said. “If they can read at high levels, what can’t they do?”

To make his point, he mentions several recent changes in the insurance industry. Union Pacific, for example, is one company that now gives literacy tests to its employees to be eligible for insurance. Riddile said that other companies are sure to follow suit as literacy demands grow increasingly technical in a world filled with microchips and DNA samples.

“Just to get by today, you’ve got to be fairly sophisticated,” Riddile said. “Demand for literacy skills exist in every field.”

<b>STATISTICS SHOW</b> that increasing the literacy of students at T.C. Williams will be a difficult challenge for Riddile. Reading scores have been declining for years at the high school, with the scores of economically disadvantaged students falling more rapidly than other subgroups. Students with disabilities pose the biggest challenge for educators, with only 54 percent of those students passing the reading test.

“Parents count on us to do this,” Riddile said. “We can increase literacy levels, and that’s what we are going to do.”

Experts say that the effort to increase literacy starts at an early age. According to the United States Department of Education, 75 percent of students with literacy problems in third grade still experience difficulty with literacy in the ninth grade. In Virginia, 25 percent of third-grade students are unable to demonstrate reading proficiency on the Standards of Learning tests.

“Literacy is the foundation for student achievement in all subject areas,” said Isis Castro of Mount Verrnon, a member of the Virginia Board of Education and former Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Education, who is leading an effort to increase literacy skills in the commonwealth. “We must ensure that all children are reading on grade level by the third grade and that they continue to build on their reading skills throughout their academic careers.”

In June, Riddile spoke to the Virginia Board of Education about the topic of literacy — an area where he is increasingly recognized as an expert. One of the PowerPoint slides he used during the presentation presented the problem in stark relief — a call to battle for educators in Virginia.

“American children are imperiled because they don’t read well enough, quickly enough or easily enough to ensure comprehension in their content course in middle and secondary schools,” the slide said.

Shortly after Riddile’s presentation, the Virginia Department of Education unveiled a new literacy initiative. In a June 28 press release, Virginia Board of Education President Mark Emblidge announced the formation of a special committee to develop strategies to raise the level of literacy of children, adolescents, and adults. Emblidge laid out a set of goals for the committee: finding a way to increase the number of students reading on grade level by the third grade, sustaining a love of reading among students as they move into high school, assisting limited English proficient students in obtaining an education and strengthening literacy programs for adult learners.

“Success in our society and economy requires an ever-higher level of literacy,” Emblidge said in a written statement announcing the creation of the council. “The board’s literacy committee will monitor the effectiveness of the commonwealth’s efforts and recommend policies to increase literacy for Virginia’s citizens.”

<b>RIDDILE’S INVOVEMENT</b> in the literacy movement goes back to his childhood in Burgettstown, Pa. For many years, the hardscrabble town in America’s Rust Belt was dominated by the steel industry. Riddile said that many of his classmates dropped out of school to take jobs at the factories.

“Those jobs aren’t there anymore,” Riddile said. “Good just isn’t good enough any more.”

Riddile graduated from Burgettstown High School in 1968. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, a master’s degree from George Mason University and a doctorate in education from the George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. He and his wife, Marianne, live in Fairfax. His son is a junior studying business at the University of Florida and his daughter works for Delex Systems in Vienna.

“I’m from a poor family,” Riddile said. “So I was fortunate to have teachers who gave me literacy skills.”

While he was principal of J.E.B. Stuart High School from 1997 to 2006, Riddile amassed an impressive array of awards and commendations. The National Association of School Principals and MetLife named him principal of the year. The National Association of Secondary School Principals identified the school as one of the 10 best high schools in the nation for addressing the needs of “underserved” students. The Greater Washington Reading Council named him Administrator of the Year and the Mental Health Association gave him a Distinguished Service Award.

<b>HIS NEW OFFICE</b> at T.C. Williams is significantly more orderly than under its former occupant. John Porter had been principal of the school for more than 20 years, and his office was clogged with mementos, pictures, cards and the kind of keepsakes that decades of leadership will amass. In stark contrast, Riddile’s office is neat — the new carpet smell is still predominant as T.C. Williams’ new principal settles into his desk chair to plot out his strategy for improving literacy skills at the school.

“We have to know how our students are reading,” Riddile said. “That’s the first step.”

Riddile plans to have students in grades 9, 10 and 11 take the Stanford Diagnostic Test to assess their reading ability. This would be a policy change for the high school, which did not previously give all students a formalized reading test.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Porter, who is now an assistant superintendent with the division’s central administration office on Beauregard Street. “Annual testing will give us a much better idea of where the students are and what they need.”

When the test results come in, Riddile plans to set up interventions for the lowest performing students. He said that early detection can lead to specialized attention for these students, who could benefit from individualized tutoring. After the interventions have been scheduled, Riddile plans to use the data to embed literacy skills into the existing curriculum at T.C. Williams.

“We need to get kids to read with a purpose instead of just reading to read,” Riddile said. “A lot of the problem is that students will often read passages without really knowing why they are reading it.”

Creating a sense of purpose is an organizing principal for Riddile, who is making the final preparations for the first day of school Aug. 21. From that day on, he said, improving literacy skills at the school will be a major goal — one that he sees as an existential imperative for Alexandria, Virginia and the United States of America.

“The 20th century was ours,” Riddile said. “Will the 21st be ours as well?”