Seven Steps to Pumped-Up Reading Achievement

By Rachel Ray, Principal magazine

For all children, and especially those living in poverty, reading practice is essential. At school, I tell our students that reading is just like playing basketball. If you want to improve how you play, you have to practice. It is the same with reading. The more you practice, the better you get.

In our school, like many others, reading is a critical area of concern. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading showed no significant improvement since 2009, when only one-third of fourth-graders nationwide performed at or above the proficient level. Further, students from lower-income families who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch typically scored lower on average than students from higher-income families. That finding is worrisome in schools like ours, where the poverty rate is increasing.

Located in Lancaster, S.C., Clinton Elementary School enrolls about 400 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5. Ninety-five percent of students are minority, and 5 percent are white. Ninety-nine percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

In addition to the school having a high poverty rate, one-fourth of the students have disabilities. The Lancaster County School District chose Clinton Elementary to serve most of the district’s special education students who are identified as “educable mentally disabled.” Many of the students who have an individualized education plan (IEP) have IQ scores of 50 to 70.

In 2007, our school did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP), and in 2008 it was named a “newly identified” school. We needed to post major gains to meet state mandates and make AYP. To turn around our school and improve the performance of students, teachers, and parents, we made seven significant changes:

  • Launched an ongoing, schoolwide professional development program;
  • Formed professional learning teams;
  • Integrated technology to differentiate instruction;
  • Added intervention programs during and after school;
  • Conducted visits to students’ homes;
  • Encouraged independent reading at school and at home; and
  • Set clear expectations for new hires.
A Transformation Realized

Since making these changes, our school has transformed its culture around reading and improved in many ways. Students are excited and motivated to read. Parents are more involved. Teachers are demonstrating expert skills and collaborating to make data-informed decisions.

Plus, students have made significant gains on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS).

1. Schoolwide Professional Development. Rethinking our approach to professional development has been a vital part of our turnaround. Prior to 2009, our professional development program was not ongoing or data-driven, and there was little accountability. If, for example, four teachers traveled to a conference for training, they would share information with their colleagues but there was little or no follow-up to see if they implemented what they learned.

During the 2009-2010 school year, we restructured our program so that about 21 days of schoolwide professional development are scheduled throughout the year. Everyone has shared knowledge, so we all hold ourselves accountable for what we learn. While teachers do spend time away from the classroom for some training, what they gain and take back to the classroom is worth it.

As part of our program, outside experts train teachers and model lessons. For example, in 2009 and 2010, we brought in experts to conduct training on such topics as the five components of reading, test-taking strategies, and questioning techniques. We also select training topics based on our students’ needs, as evidenced by their classwork and assessment results. For example, when teachers saw that students struggled with comprehension and drawing inferences from texts, we received additional training in those areas.

2. Meeting in Professional Learning Teams. During the 2009-2010 school year, we also initiated professional learning teams at each grade level through a district initiative with SEDL, a nonprofit education research, development, and dissemination organization. Each team meets weekly to examine student work, analyze student assessment results and PASS and MAP scores to identify students’ needs, determine what we can do to better meet those needs, and decide what instructional strategies and professional development we need to make it happen.

One of the benefits of this collaborative approach is that it has given us a framework to study our state standards more closely. As a result, teachers have gained a deeper understanding of what students are expected to know at each grade level as determined by the standards.

3. Differentiating Instruction with Technology. When Clinton Elementary failed to achieve AYP, we realized we needed to do a better job differentiating instruction to meet each student at his or her level. So, in 2008, we implemented an instructional improvement system called Classworks.

Students work on the system 50 minutes a day, twice a week, in computer labs to reinforce their reading and math skills. The K-12 instructional software includes more than 17,000 searchable activities aligned to standards and tagged by learning style for differentiated instruction.

We import students’ MAP scores directly into the system to create individualized learning paths for each student based on his or her particular needs. Because each instructional activity is tagged by learning style, teachers can also find and assign activities presented in the learning modality that students learn from best.

Teachers also use the software with interactive whiteboards for whole-class and small-group instruction in their classrooms. Teachers like being able to tie their instruction to what students are doing in the lab. They often use the software to introduce lessons or to highlight particular skills. Or, if the data show students are missing a skill, the teacher can reteach it with the class or in small groups.

4. Intervention Programs. To enhance instruction further, in 2009 we eliminated enrichment courses during first period to make room for two direct instruction-based reading intervention programs. During the first 45 minutes of each day, all students in third through fifth grades work to improve their decoding and comprehension skills through a program called Corrective Reading. Also during this time, second-graders work to build their fluency and independent reading skills through the Reading Mastery program.

In addition, we have an after-school program that provides additional support in reading and math, and helps students successfully prepare for state tests. Each day, about 30 students receive small-group instruction, work on their homework, and then work on individualized interventions. The extra time helps push students forward and helps them feel more secure in their skills.

5, 6. Home Visits and Independent Reading. In an economically disadvantaged community, many children do not have rich literature or educational materials at home. Without these materials, the likelihood of a child practicing reading outside school on a consistent basis is limited. To address this need, we launched two separate but related endeavors: home visits and an independent reading system called 100 Book Challenge that allows students to choose books to take home every afternoon.

All our teachers, assistants, and administrators conduct home visits throughout the school year. Each staff member is required to do a minimum of three visits, but most do more. These visits knock down the walls between school and home, and they let parents know that we are accessible and approachable, which opens the lines of communication.

Once a relationship has been established, discussions during home visits focus on reading. We also model how to read to their child and provide questions they can ask no matter what book their child is reading. As a result of these visits, parents’ trust in us has increased and they appreciate that we are all on the same team, working to help their child excel.

The 100 Book Challenge also helps build bridges between school and home. The structured independent reading system for use at school and home requires daily parental involvement to monitor reading practice. In our classrooms, we added 7,500 new books, leveled according to independent reading levels. Each student chooses books that are just right for his or her level and reads 30 minutes in school and 30 minutes at home. At school, teachers also use the books to conduct mini-lessons and one-on-one conferences with students.

7. Hiring Dedicated Professionals. There is no question that it takes dedication to work at our school—and our teachers and staff are extremely dedicated. When hiring for a new position, I tell prospective employees that we are looking for someone who understands the effects of poverty, thinks outside the box, and is willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.

In our school, there are no excuses. Failure is not an option. We all understand that the only way out of poverty is through education, and it is our responsibility to educate all students. No matter how difficult or tragic a student’s situation might be, there is no reason why that student cannot learn, and it is our responsibility to find a way to help that child achieve success. All our teachers care deeply about the students and hold students to the highest standard possible.

Achieving Results

Thanks to the hard work of students, teachers, and parents, our students have soared to new heights. In August 2010, 46 percent of students were reading independently on grade level compared with only 2 percent of students reading independently on grade level in August 2009. On both the PASS and the MAP, data show that individual students are growing and that students’ performance levels are increasing across all grades and subjects. For example, from 2009 to 2010 on the MAP assessments:

  • In language arts, the percentage of students performing at “below basic” dropped by 24 percent for second grade, 52 percent for third grade, 25 percent for fourth grade, and 17 percent for fifth grade.
  • In fourth grade, the percentage of students performing at “below basic” dropped by 35 percent in math, 25 percent in language arts, and 71 percent in reading.
  • In fifth grade, students in the highest performance levels (proficient and advanced), increased by 33 percent in math, 30 percent in language arts, and 23 percent in reading.
When comparing the 2009 and 2010 PASS scores, we saw the following gains:

  • Third-grade students made gains of 26 percentage points on the English language arts test and 28 percentage points on the mathematics test.
  • All disabled students gained 17 percentage points in the area of English language arts.
  • All students gained 11 percentage points on the mathematics test.
  • All minority students gained 14 percentage points on the mathematics test; nondisabled students gained 13 percentage points; and students who qualify for subsidized meals gained 14 percentage points.
  • All fifth-grade minority students without IEPs who qualify for subsidized meals outperformed the state average by 11 percentage points.
In 2010, all students met our performance objectives in reading. In mathematics, we met our performance objectives except in the area of disabled students. Among regular education students, minority students, and economically disadvantaged students, we surpassed district and state averages on the PASS English language arts and math tests.

For example, on the PASS 2010, third- and fourth-grade minority students without IEPs and who qualify for subsidized meals outscored minority students at both the district and state levels in writing, English language arts, and math.

In 2010, our school met 16 of 17 AYP objectives. Although we just missed making AYP, we have made significant progress. Parents often tell me that our efforts have made a difference and we have noticed changes in parents, too. Although we hold the same number of parent workshops each year, more parents than ever are attending.

Through the dedication and collaboration of our teachers, students, and parents, we have transformed our school and students’ homes to create a culture of reading. As a result, student achievement and self-esteem have increased, parents feel more involved and positive about our school, and teacher satisfaction and morale have improved. In addition, our whole community reaps the benefits when our students stay in school, complete high school, and go on to college. While it has been hard work, the rewards are priceless.

Rachel Ray is principal of Clinton Elementary School in Lancaster, South Carolina.
Connect Kids With Books They Want to
Read – Schedule a Book Fair Today!
Summer Reading Challenge
naesp foundation