Regardless of their reading ability, every first-grader at Paul Norton Elementary School in Bettendorf gets some special attention when it comes to developing reading skills.

The school's three first-grade teachers, Kimberly Lewis, Laura Milburn and Kellie Smart, along with academic interventionist Jennifer Saxon, each lead one of four groups of first-graders who have been divided up based on their reading ability. They work with them on developing their skills for 30 minutes a day, designated "Smart Time."

The students who are ahead of their peers in reading ability are given independent reading development activities.

Principal Julie Trepa said it is important that students continue to be challenged to improve their reading skills, no matter how well they read.

"We need to make sure we are taking them wherever they are and stretching them," she said.

All Bettendorf schools are required to have a data-based reading program as part of the district's efforts to comply with the statewide Response to Intervention initiative, which encourages schools to use data from initial testing and frequent monitoring of students'  progress to develop curriculum.

The program at Paul Norton is in its first year. Trepa said regularly collecting data on students' skills not only allows teachers to address the specific needs of children, it allows them to identify patterns of skills students as a group are lacking and to adjust the curriculum at lower grade levels to address the issue.

Milburn said early intervention is key to keeping a child on track and reading at grade level.

"We can't wait for them to fail to do something," she said.

During a recent class, Smart worked with a small group of students who were given an assortment of paper circles — red circles marked with vowels and blue circles marked with consonants.

They use the circles to spell out and sound out words.

"Sssssss-aaaaaaa-tttttttt," the students say.

In her own classroom, Lewis has handed a group of students a worksheet and instructed them to highlight "s-blend" words, such as "scarf," "small" or "snap."

In various nooks and crannies of both classrooms, other children read independently.

Jefferson-Edison Elementary School in Davenport uses a similar program that divides students into small groups based on their ability and gives them specialized instruction.

Principal Christie Pitts said the school monitors their progress closely. Children have access to their own progress reports, which allows them to set goals and monitor their own progress toward reaching them.

Groups can sometimes include students from a different grade level, depending on their ability, said Toni Wilson, the school's literacy coordinator.

The school will be getting additional help next year thanks to its selection as part of the Iowa Reading Corps program sponsored by the United Ways of Iowa.

Jefferson-Edison was one of 11 Iowa schools selected for the program. During the next school year, two AmeriCorps workers will be at the school full time, assisting students with reading skills.

The program is funded in part with $24,200 in matching funds from the United Way of the Quad-Cities Area's Community Action Plan Fund.

The fund also is providing $20,000 to help fund summer enrichment programs in the Quad-Cities to bring teachers to local summer programs to provide an educational element and help minimize summer learning loss.

Although the school has programs in place to assist students with their learning, Wilson said parents also play a key role in developing their children's reading skills, and work done at home doesn't have to be complicated or expensive.

"You don't have to go out and buy things," Wilson said. "There are simple things you can do at home."

The most basic thing parents can do to help develop their child's reading skills is to read with them. Tami Stineman, whose daughter, Kaitlyn is a first-grader at Paul Norton in Bettendorf, said she was an avid reader as a child, a trait Kaitlyn has developed, too.

"I'm lucky in that area," she said.

Bernie Carmack, a kindergarten teacher at Longfellow Liberal Arts School in Rock Island, does group reading activities with her students before dividing them up into smaller, guided reading groups.

Jessica Baids, a clinical studies student at Augustana College, is reading the book “Where’s Baby Tom?” to several students. She then asks the kids to draw pictures of some of the places Baby Tom is hiding in his house.

Seven-year-old Ade’an Lear draws a picture of an attic, where the baby was hiding.

Orion Bullock, 5, draws a picture of a garden, where Baby Tom was picking flowers.

In another small group, students are working on family words, such as “up” and “ot.” The kids then shake sand-filled plastic bottles to find words within those word families. The kids then write the words down on lined paper.

Another group works with literacy applications on iPads.

Carmack said the small groups are important, as they provide more individual attention to students who are more proficient than others and need an extra challenge and to students who need extra help.

 “I really feel like we’re building that foundation for success in reading,” she said. “We’re essentially doing reading all day long, because even when you’re studying science and social studies, especially at this age, we’re incorporating and using a lot of related terms.”

Carmack said she’s seen big growth in her students.

“They’re all readers, they’re all writers now,” she said.

The staff at Longfellow also encourages parental involvement by hosting a “Learning and Family Fun Night,” where parents are given tips and resources on how to help their children at home, Carmack said.

Carmack said she sends students home with a “literacy bag” every week to encourage outside reading.

(Tara Becker contributed to this story.)