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Intimate reporting and a personal essay show third graders struggling to read after pandemic

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The stories are part of a school-year-long narrative project, edited by Ted Anthony, on the race to teach third graders to read; no other news organization has launched anything like it. Research shows children who can’t read fluently by the end of third grade are left far behind and less likely to complete high school.

Kansas City-based Heather Hollingsworth knew firsthand how important this particular year is for children: Her third-grade son has dyslexia and struggles to read. Current third graders are, Hollingsworth would say, “the most pandemic-disrupted class.” They were in kindergarten when the pandemic hit. Some missed all of first grade — the foundational year for reading — and had significant quarantine disruption in second grade. Test scores show they’ve lost more ground in reading than older grades and have been slower to catch up.

The team started with Atlanta, one of the rare cities in the country to respond to the pandemic by adding class time to each school day. Boston-based Bianca Vázquez Toness and Atlanta-based Sharon Johnson built remarkable relationships with students in one third-grade class and conducted candid interviews with their teacher. They also spent time at a housing project where many of the kids lived.

As the project progressed, Hollingsworth continued to share her son’s journey with the team. Finally, she agreed to take a stab at sharing it with the world. One evening, she wrote a raw, moving piece that ran nearly untouched.

The stories were a hit among our subscribers and from readers. Hollingsworth was flooded with responses cheering on her son, Thomas — both in her email and in comments on the social media sites of AP customers that posted the story. Parents shared their own stories. Teachers wrote of supporting struggling readers. One person said the piece read like “love story” to Thomas. Another wrote: “Thomas — no one should ever underestimate the power of your brain. You’ll be just fine!”

For powerful stories that combined great visuals with deep reporting, the team of Vázquez Toness, Hollingsworth and Johnson are AP’s Best of Week — Second Winner.

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