12/22/08 — School Street success story: putting reading first

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School Street success story: putting reading first

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 22, 2008 1:46 PM

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Marie Stone, a second-grade teacher at School Street Elementary School, assists student Kevin Grady with a reading assignment.

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Nile Harvey, a second-grader in Marie Stone's class at School Street Elementary School, works on a reading assignment. Each morning, 90 minutes are blocked off for students throughout the building to participate in some type of reading activity.

For 90 minutes each morning at School Street Elementary School, it's reading time.

And school officials say the extra emphasis on their ABCs is paying off both in student interest and test scores.

The designated time for students in kindergarten through fourth grade is part of the school's core reading program, a byproduct of the five-year federal Reading First grant awarded in 2004.

School Street used those funds to buy supplies and materials and hired a half-time guidance counselor and full-time intervention specialist and reading literacy coach.

The goal? To make reading proficiency a priority for every School Street child.

As one of two district public schools using the Reading First model -- Carver Heights Elementary being the other -- educators at School Street have stayed current on strategies to help students succeed.

The school was recently recognized by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction for its efforts. Out of 92 elementary schools across the state participating in the grant program, School Street was the only one to make High Growth under the state's ABC model and Adequate Yearly Progress without safe harbour and/or the confidence interval under No Child Left Behind.

The school was also named an "Exemplary School" through Reading First for both 2007 and 2008.

Even before receiving the grant, however, test scores at School Street were steadily on the rise. That was partly what determined eligibility for the grant, originally given to 99 schools in the state.

"We have always had a structured program here," said Christy Haley, the school's curriculum facilitator. "We have always made sure the teachers had added support. We spend lots of money on outside resources."

It also helps that the school has continuity -- limited turnover among teachers is a plus, especially since they work as a team, Mrs. Haley said.

Providing teacher training and staff development is key to the program's success, she added.

"The biggest thing is it's not the program teaching the kids. It's the teachers that know the program and what to add to the program that teaches the kids," she said.

"The program is just a tool and it's like any other tool," principal Dan McPhail said. "You put the right tool into a craftsman's hands and they can do anything."

Reading First focuses on the five reading skills, explained Judy Lewis, reading coach -- vocabulary, writing, phonemic awareness, comprehension, phonics and fluency.

"Teachers know what their kids' weaknesses are and add to the program as needed," Mrs. Haley said. "They keep a portfolio of every student."

Assessments are done every two to four weeks to identify students at risk for reading deficiencies, Ms. Lewis said.

"That's what the reading coach does, helps teachers with the strategies and data. ... They have a calendar and they're supposed to test these students," she said.

"And we don't deviate from it," Mrs. Haley added. "Judy goes in and observes classes to make sure they're following the core."

There is a format to follow, although it can be customized for the individual class and students' learning abilities, the educators said.

For example, teachers might have students read out loud while another class will have partners read to each other or "echo read" after the teacher.

It has proven to be a success.

"Students are making High Growth on the ABCs and continue to make Adequate Yearly Progress," McPhail said. "We have 13 categories that we have to meet where our children show that they're at grade level and we have made all of those every time without any safe harbours (a provision which protects schools from sanctions if they miss the state's marker)."

School Street also has another distinction, the principal said. In the district, it is the only schoolwide Title I school.

"All the other ones are targeted. They identify students who they target because they need extra help or special help to make the grade-level progress," McPhail said. "We had so many that I asked (district officials), 'Who do I target?' It means that we remain schoolwide, that we're held responsible for every student."

It all plays out well when the time comes for end-of-grade testing. Because the program is done throughout the year and assessments are frequent, there are fewer surprises when test time comes.

To boost morale and create a sense of family, events are held frequently, but especially in the days leading up to the stringent tests.

Classrooms write poems or encouraging cards to students taking the tests, the school hosts a breakfast for teachers all three days of testing and on the day before the test, McPhail said, kindergartners through second-graders line the hallway and chant, "Do your best on the test!" as third- and fourth-graders parade by.

"It's kind of a tradition we do with them," he said. "We do things to give kids an incentive other than being on grade level -- which is an incentive -- just fun things to do."

Parental involvement has also improved, Mrs. Haley said. Despite conflicts and work schedules, there are things parents can do to support their child, be it reading to them in the evenings, double-checking homework or checking bookbags for school notes and other information.

McPhail is pleased with the reading initiative, crediting teachers and staff with the outcomes.

"My people make me look good," he said. "They do an excellent job, they're dedicated, they are seasoned and they work well together, especially in crunch time. We are small (271 students), we have our own problems but we are a family when it comes down to getting things done."

Through Reading First money and some local funding, the school has also been able to do a large-scale project for the coming year.

"Every classroom will be getting a Promethean board," McPhail said. The interactive boards hooked up to a computer also feature an "accu-slate" allowing teachers freedom to move around and teach.

The boards are costly -- typically $4,500 to $5,000 each -- but the school got a "good deal," McPhail said.

"It will be money well spent because the kids will be able to see things that they haven't imagined. It's going to be like putting a Wii in your classroom," he said.

And yet, McPhail said, despite the program's success, its continuation is in question.

"Congress did not reapprove it to continue," he said. "Sadly enough, Reading First, according to Congress' own audits, has been the first grant that has proved worthy of what it's doing, but they did not fund it again."

As for the next school year, the school has about 53 percent of the money needed to continue the program.

"We have made plans and are in the process of preparing for next year, providing the things that our classes will need to continue it and the hope is that Congress will wake up and re-establish the grant," McPhail said.