DALLAS (Nexstar) — Texas students are lagging behind in the classroom, especially when it comes to English and reading levels.

According to newly-released results from this year’s STAAR exams, about one-half of Texas students met grade-level standards in English I. About 60% met grade-level standards in English II.

Those numbers were not exasperated by the pandemic, as the Texas Education Agency says results for the 2020-21 school year stayed “largely consistent.” However, the gaps still equate to thousands of Texas hundreds of thousands of students who are falling behind.

It’s why the Barbara Bush Foundation is aiming to fill those gaps through its peer-to-peer mentoring program, called Teen Trendsetters, which has been around for 20 years. Middle and high school students are paired with younger ones, ranging from grades 1-3, who are reading four months or more behind their grade level.

Students who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to a long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

British Robinson, the president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation, said the “special sauce” in the Teen Trendsetters program is peer mentoring.

“We found out year-over-year, independent evaluations, that the mentors also gain. They gain confidence, they gain the ability to see themselves as a lawyer or a doctor,” she said. “That confidence that they gain pushes them through school and makes them stay in school, get their high school diploma and then typically move on to college.”

Currently, Teen Trendsetters has 10 active programs in four different Texas school districts. Within those programs are nearly 200 mentees and 125 student mentors. Each program is overseen by a volunteer educator. Cathy Kazyaka is one of those educators and has been running the program in Dallas-area schools for five years.

“If I want things to be great for my students in high school, then we better start building that foundation in elementary school,” Kazyaka said.

Kazyaka, who is also a high school teacher, said her Teen Trendsetter students started at least six months behind where they were supposed to be reading last fall.

“It just saddens me that we are having kids sort of fall through the cracks,” Kazyaka said.

Robinson said Texas ranks 48th out of all 50 states for adults with low literacy, often a byproduct of children not learning to read well enough early on, or due to adults who learned English as a second language. For students, the state average is about 40%t of all students not reading at grade level.

“This affects every aspect of our life. It’s a social issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s an equity issue, and it’s multigenerational,” she said. “If one of us suffers, all of us suffer and we can leave no one behind due to low literacy in America.”

She’s hoping her nonprofit can expand programs like Teen Trendsetters to more Texas school districts, citing funding as the biggest barrier. The other aspect is outreach to school districts, which she says is made easier when presenting evidence of the program’s efficacy.

“It also has an incredible spillover effect,” Robinson said. “They are not a lot of tutoring and mentoring programs. That’s the distinction with our teen trendsetters program…its special sauce is the mentoring.”

A five-year analysis of the program showed mentees progressed one grade level or more in reading after seven months in the program. The study showed that progress was 56% more growth than would be expected for the average student during that same time period.

“By the end of the program when I’m putting in these scores, I literally get tears in my eyes. Because not only has every student made progress, but every student, you’ll see their scores have doubled, sometimes tripled. It is crazy,” Kazyaka said.

Kazyaka receives a small stipend for the program for the extra hours she volunteers to run Teen Trendsetters, on top of being a high school teacher. Her students met once a week, with the high school mentors coming in before their classes began for the day. Each child is paired with the same mentor throughout the year.

“That relationship building has been huge. The Teen Trendsetters program has provided some normalcy. It’s provided structure,” she said. “They know there’s going to be a reading buddy there on Friday morning to look forward to.”

How is the program funded and sustained?

As a nonprofit, the Barbara Bush Foundation receives funding from grants and donations. Robinson wanted to give kudos to the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, which has been one of their partners for 20 years. In April, it donated a $1.6 million grant to implement an action plan for adult literacy.

Robinson said in general, the field of literacy gaps is very underfunded and underresearched.

“Oftentimes, there’s there’s money going to tutoring programs, but maybe not necessarily to the mentoring tutoring programs and then programs that actually support the parent,” she said. “This is a true family sort of literacy parent engagement program.”

“The donors donating to this program, they really are truly changing lives. We’re building home libraries for kids that could never have a home library. We’re building a parent connection because every book has a parent guide that the parents can read to them,” Kazyaka said. “It is just an amazing opportunity to build a community connection.”