A Community of Readers
Implementing a School-Wide Reading Initiative to Improve High Stakes Test Scores in Urban Schools
An inner city elementary school in Cincinnati, Ohio, designed and implemented a comprehensive reading program to improve overall student achievement. School effectiveness was measured by student performance on the Ohio Proficiency Test. The high stakes test evaluated five areas of student achievement, but was primarily a reading test since reading comprehension was essential for success in all subject areas. The staff believed significant gains in test scores could be achieved by improving the students’ reading skills. As a result of the initiative, Kirby Road Elementary School moved from school improvement to school achievement within the district’s accountability plan.
About the School
Kirby Road Elementary School serviced students in grades preschool through eight. There was an enrollment of 380 students with approximately 79% of the student population being African American and 74% eligible for free lunch. The stability rate was 84%, which meant 16% of the students present on the first day of school moved before the end of the school year.
The Kirby Road building was well maintained despite it being constructed in 1910. The school had operated as a primary school, kindergarten through third grade, for many years. As a result it did not experience the attrition one would normally expect. The hard wood floors, ceramic tile drinking fountains, and other details were impressive and indicative of another era.
At the time of the restructuring, the school functioned in five multi-age teams: two primary, two intermediate, and one junior high team. The seamless structure of the multi-age teams made it possible to better meet the learning needs of students. In the multi-age grouping scheme, a second grade student experiencing difficulty with mastering basic reading skills could receive reading instruction with the first grade teacher on the team. Conversely, a second grade student with advanced skills in math could go to a third grade classroom for enrichment. As a result of the interaction within the teams, students became familiar with the teachers they would know for three years. Equally important, the multi-age approach reduced the practice of using grade retention as an intervention for students with learning problems.
An instructional leadership team was formed to serve as a decision making body for the school. The team consisted of the principal, a representative from each multi-age team, non certificated employees and parents. The instructional leadership team concept fostered a sense of ownership and gave everyone a voice and stake in the overall success of the school.
A New Mission
Each year all schools in the district were required to complete a lengthy document which detailed how funds and resources would be used to improve student achievement. The superintendent at the time encouraged schools to consider using a comprehensive reform model. Implementing a reform model from an outside source involved bringing in consultants familiar with the model, a major restructuring of the school, and a reallocation of funds. Comprehensive reform models were generally offered by commercial enterprises.
The Kirby Road staff was wary of the comprehensive reform models available. The models were viewed often as too intrusive and too expensive. One reform model used in the district at the time was designed to improve reading skills. It required a restructuring of the budget in order to pay for extensive staff training and the purchasing of all new text books, students work books, and teacher manuals. All lessons in the model were scripted and read verbatim by teachers. The model was described by some teachers as awkward and difficult to use. A three year financial commitment of approximately $120,000 annually was also required.
As an alternative to a commercial comprehensive reform model, the instructional leadership team agreed that it would be best to design an improvement plan that was unique to the academic and cultural needs of the students at Kirby Road School. The team found it necessary to implement a school-wide reading initiative since the overall effectiveness of the school was measured by scores on the Ohio Proficiency Test and strong reading comprehension skills were essential for success.
Generally speaking, girls at the elementary level read better than boys. Also, boys from a low socio-economic background don’t read as well as compared to other boys. But, a student reading on grade level by the end of third grade has a 90% chance of graduating from high school. According to the National Reading Panel, in order to become proficient in reading students have to:
Apply alphabetic knowledge to decode words
Construct sentence meaning
Monitor word recognition
Link new information
Anticipate forthcoming information
The superintendent was very receptive to the school’s proposal His only stipulation was that the reform model be supported by scientific research. The Kirby Road leadership team met and developed a new mission statement which supported the new school focus.
Kirby Road School’s new mission statement read:
All members of Kirby Road School will become an integral part of our “Community of Readers”. Through the implementation of a comprehensive reading program that involves students, staff, and parents, each student will become a competent reader.
Research to Support the New Reading Program
Gathering evidence to support the reading model was made simpler since in 1997 Congress had commissioned the Secretary of Education and the National Institute of Children Health and Human Development to assess the status of the research based knowledge on the effectiveness of various approaches for teaching children to read. In 2000, the results were published. The National Reading Panel consisted of 14 individuals- leading scientists in reading research, representatives from colleges of education, reading teachers, administrators, and parents. There was over 100,000 research studies on reading since 1966 and perhaps 15,000 appearing before that time. However, only a small fraction of the research literature met the panel’s standards. A control group and/or baseline data was required as part of the experimental design. The study had to be published in English and focus on grades kindergarten to 12.
After reviewing the report, the staff set out to structure a school-wide reading program to include the five components outlined by the National Reading Panel. The new model included instruction in the areas of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension. In order to implement the Community of Readers’ model five areas were addressed: staff development, parent involvement, focused instruction, time on task, and student motivation.
In order to meet the needs of the staff and use scientific research for the reform model, the staff entered into a relationship with the Mayerson Academy, a teacher training facility in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Mayerson instructors did a great job of analyzing the elements of instruction and presenting current educational research in a way that was both practical and useful for teachers.
However, it was difficult to find time for in-service training. Meetings had to take place after school and on weekends as no one wanted to use valuable instructional time for staff development. One approach was to redesign regularly scheduled staff meetings for this purpose. Each teacher was asked to give a 15 minute presentation during staff meetings to share successful reading practices. Staff members put a great deal of time and effort into the presentations and the ideas were very helpful to their colleagues.
A schedule was also created so that one multi-age team of teachers could meet with a consultant beginning one hour before the end of the school day and ending one hour after dismissal. Teachers adjusted their instructional lesson plans so that the students were completing independent activities at this time. Teachers with planning periods at this time and support personnel were utilized to help provide coverage for these classrooms.
A book club for the staff was started as part of the staff development component. Two teachers led the initiative by selecting books to be purchased and leading discussions when the club met. Participation was optional and staff members were involved to various degrees.
The school librarian reviewed the latest software programs and arranged training for the staff. One program that was chosen for Kirby Road School provided students with pretest, posttest, and learning activities to remediate reading deficiencies. Teachers learned how to track students’ progress through an onboard management system.
Parent involvement is a key component for student success in school especially at the elementary level. So, the staff developed a comprehensive approach to increase and sustain the connection between home and school.
Title One funds were used to purchase daily planners for each student. A supply was kept on hand throughout the school year for new students. Teachers and parents communicated by writing notes to one another in the planners. If there was ever a dispute between parents and a teacher over communication, the principal would always ask to review the planner. Midway through the school year and at the end of the school year, functions were held to acknowledge those students who used their planners on a daily basis. In January, students and their family members were invited to “Saturday Afternoon at the Movies.” In June, a picnic was held. These events were well attended.
A set of fiction, nonfiction, multicultural and cross-curricular literature was delivered to the school each month by the public library. The loan program provided many enjoyable learning opportunities in reading. The amount of time spent reading at home was recorded on a daily basis through the use of student planners and reading logs. Keeping track of how much time students read was an attempt to correlate the amount of time reading with improvement in comprehension and fluency.
The “Come Listen to Me Read” program was held once a month at the school. Parents of the primary level students were invited to visit school and read with their child. The program was held in the lunchroom which made it easy to serve refreshments that were provided by the teacher/parent group. Students who were proficient in reading and emerging readers participated. Books at the students’ independent reading levels were made available by their teachers. On special occasions, students took center stage and read poetry to peers and parents.
At the time of the school wide reform, many of the families had yet to purchase computers for the home, so an after school computer class was offered for families. Parents learned basic word processing skills while students worked with classroom software. A suburban school generously donated 25 Apple computers to the school. While the computers were somewhat outdated, they were very useful to families who did not have computers. The computers were loaned to families for two weeks with available software. The families were very conscientious about returning the borrowed computers.
Adult reading classes were also offered to parents. This enabled the staff to improve parent involvement as well as provide a service. While only one parent attended class on a regular basis, others received information about community adult reading classes and GED programs.
As a result of the focused instruction component, all teaching personnel became reading teachers as reading was taught across all content areas. The first two periods of the day were designated for uninterrupted reading instruction. Reading was emphasized in all areas. For example, the physical education teacher developed and maintained a word wall in the gym for each grade level. Learning to read all of the words on the word wall became a competition for students. The Art, Music, and P.E. teachers assisted the classroom teachers by taking small groups aside for individual help. Guided oral reading and partner reading were used in place of the traditional round robin reading. At least once a day, the principal called a classroom and asked a teacher to send a group of students to the office to read. Readers who impressed the principal received a treat for their efforts so every student in the building was eager to visit the office and show off their skills.
Multi-age teams met weekly to analyze students work samples for rigor and alignment with the state standards. It was at this time that lessons were reviewed and adjusted to meet the needs of the students. Test results were also analyzed to detect patterns in students’ performance. For example, if 50% of the students in a class selected the same wrong answer on a multiple choice question, the team tried to determine the cause.
Increased Time on Task
Retirees and college students were recruited to tutor small groups of students. The volunteers were committed to helping and were very dependable. The principal utilized district funds to pay 5 eighth grade girls to tutor primary students after school. Many of the teachers extended the school day by tutoring some of their students for one hour after school a few days a week. A month prior to the administration of the proficiency test most of the staff, including the school nurse, stayed after school to tutor students.
On rainy days when students were unable to go outside for lunch recess, they spent the 15 minutes in the auditorium reading silently. A token economy and other incentives were used to get students to buy into using their free time to read. As a reward on Friday, students were permitted to watch a movie.
Some Kirby Road students were highly motivated to do their best and take advantage of all the opportunities afforded them. For others, learning did not come easy and school was more of a job and an unpleasant experience. So the staff had to come up with extrinsic motivators for these reluctant students until they discovered the joy of learning.
The school had in place a token economy which was used to reward students for good behavior. The program was extended to acknowledge students for increased time on task and good effort. For example, when students read for the principal or were caught reading during lunch recess they received a Kirby Koala Dollar that could be redeemed in the principal’s office for snacks or small prizes.
Students who performed well in class earned field trips to the Natural History Museum and the Aquarium. They attended assemblies and other culturally enriching activities. Regularly scheduled visits to the library provided another opportunity for children to read on their own and to be read to as well.
Parent involvement was also a motivator. Extending learning and enriching activities into the homes where families could share in the experience enhanced students’ motivation to learn.
The Community of Readers school-wide reform model effectively improved student achievement as measured by high stakes standardized tests and created a common focus for the entire school community. Since everyone could see the immediate value in improving reading skills in all students, the sometimes difficult task of getting everyone to work together for a common goal was made easy. The 2000 National Reading Panel data was used to ground the school-wide initiative in credible research. Since the school-wide reform model was not labor or cost intensive, all urban schools could benefit from implementing the components within the Community of Readers’ reform model.
National Reading Panel, 2000 Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups