11/06/05 — Educators work to improve reading scores

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Educators work to improve reading scores

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 6, 2005 2:18 AM

For schools like Wayne County's Carver Heights Elementary, the battle not only to increase reading scores, but to improve students' reading skills, begins the moment a boy or girl enters the classroom.

Teachers and administrators at Carver Heights say demanding better scores is fine, as long as state officials and others understand what it takes to get there -- especially in a school classified as inner city.

And that means skills must be taught before reading can improve, and factors other than education can figure into a student's success or failure.

State and local educators learned last month that fourth-graders kept pace with the national average in reading scores last year, while eighth-graders' scores dropped.

But that's just a snapshot, school officials say. In the bigger picture, schools are working diligently to close the achievement gaps and give students the tools they need to score well on end-of-grade tests.

The 2005 public school results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called The Nation's Report Card, are based on tests given last spring. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 62 percent of fourth-graders in the state performed at or above grade level in 2005. This was significantly higher than the first year of the tests, 1992, when 56 percent scored at or above grade level, but lower than in 2003, when it was at 66 percent.

With the addition of state and federal mandates, teachers and schools are under the gun to raise performance levels. While the end-of-grade tests are aptly named, efforts to prepare for them begin the very first day of the school year, teachers and administrators say.

Carver Heights Elementary School is an example of a school struggling to keep pace. And yet, in the years since the test scores have been held up as a gauge, the school has had a 40 percent increase, from a 32 percent passing rate to 73 percent last year.

"We have made the most gains of any school in the county," Carver Heights principal Beverly Woodley said. "Our kids are just like everybody else's but they're also very special. They come to us with very special circumstances sometimes."

Kindergarten teacher Carla Royal attests to that. She has had students who had never previously been in any kind of school setting or even picked up a book.

"Sometimes they have never experienced holding a crayon or a pencil, all of those things that you expect," she said. "So we really do start from the very bottom. Even just one objective, you might have to teach it several ways."

Carver Heights is its second year as a "Reading First" school, named for a federal grant run through the Department of Public Instruction. It ensures that all grade levels are tested and covers periodic assessments to prepare students to read at or above grade level.

"You don't teach to the test but you teach to the objectives that are going to be tested," Mrs. Woodley said. "You find yourself being the Bill Cosby of education. You've just got to be creative. You have got to figure out ways to keep those students motivated."

Holly Lewis is in her second year working with third-graders, "a testing grade where I was held accountable for what my students did on the EOG."

She has met with success, but said she had to pull in a variety of methods to teach reading.

Last year, 90 percent of her students scored at or above grade level. By the time the school year ended, her class contained only six of its original members, Mrs. Woodley said.

Pat Cebe, a first-grade reading teacher at the school who tutors individuals and works with small groups, said that is not uncommon.

"We're having to compare beginning scores," she said. "As we looked at some of our classrooms, they had only 50 percent of the students they started with. If you were to chart just those students that were in the program throughout the year, you would have seen greater growth."

Support from parents at home is another component that is always desired, but not necessarily acquired.

Efforts are always made to incorporate parents into the learning process, teachers said. At Carver Heights, a home/school coordinator provides materials and the school offers parent workshops and other opportunities for involvement.

Mary Bell, a first-grade teacher, said it is ideal to involve parents, but some are resistant.

"You must realize that many parents don't trust the school system because they have been low achievers, also," she said. "Some don't have the skills, but those that will come, we give materials to them and offer programs to them. We want to help the parents; we're helping their children. But ultimately, it's up to us to educate the children."

Reading coach Felicia Lee works with students from kindergarten to third grade. She said her role is to support teachers as well as students. She also attempts to send tips home to help parents feel successful.

In addition to shoring up academic scores, teacher also stress the importance of bolstering a child's self-esteem.

"Throughout the year, we try to build confidence," Ms. Lewis said. "Many have very low confidence when it comes to reading. Praise, pats on the back make them strive to be good in reading."

Children gravitate to what they think is expected of them, Ms. Lee said.

"You definitely have to have a level of expectation," she said, explaining the importance of sending the message, "'I know you can, this is what I expect of you; I will help you get there.'"

That also goes for those who often serve in isolation, the teachers who lead the students.

"I'm in and out and classrooms and I know what my teachers are doing," Mrs. Woodley said. "If they don't quite get where we want to get, I want to say, 'But I know that you did everything that you could have for your classroom.' I want them to feel good about what they did.

"We may not be where the state says we need to be for every individual child, but we have made progress."

Consultant Ben Birdsell, president of Association for Effective Schools Inc. out of New York, spent three days at the school this week. It is his fourth year working with educators at Carver Heights.

"Research shows it takes between five and seven years to make significant changes," he said. "Carver's been working really hard to get a handle on all the issues."

While he focuses on making subtle adjustments by grade levels, Birdsell's role is part coach and part listener and guide. The goal is to create a climate at the school conducive to learning and to look at the long-term to meet the testing assessments.

Carver Heights, like many schools across the country, is caught up in a time when a lot of changes are occurring in education. That factor is compounded by the reality that the school also has a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch.

"Any schools where there is low-income and poverty don't have the experiences starting school," he said.

Birdsell said he is looking at the whole continuum, from getting the community more involved to addressing how programs such as preschool and Head Start can revise the list of skills where students are having the most difficulty.

Being considered an inner city school, Carver has developed a stigma, the educators said. Teachers have likewise expressed feelings of having to work harder to measure up, Mrs. Woodley said. But she said she will stack up the students and educators at her school against any competitors.

"Kids may have to do things a different way, it may take them time to get there, but we're determined to get there," she said. "We have got positive things going on and positive people here."

She said she has lost staff members in the past, only to have them later express regret and wish they could return. This year, when she had to lose four teachers, she said she called around and did not have one person who wanted to leave.

"To me, that says a tremendous amount about pride and dedication and commitment," she said.

"You always those few in your class that are going to succeed no matter where they are," Ms. Lewis said. "I feel personally that this is where I can make the biggest difference, that I can feel like I have helped a child."