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A Better Road for New Mexico's Schools

This district wastes no time getting literacy skills on track.

By Juliette Heinze
<i>Administr@tor</i> Magazine<br />
Administr@tor Magazine

Life in Moriarty, New Mexico (population 1,800), might be considered slow-paced. But at Moriarty Municipal School District, there’s no time to lose when it comes to reading instruction. Teachers and students jump in on the very first day of school. That’s because each student’s reading proficiency has already been evaluated—before the inaugural bell rings—and teachers and administrators alike are ready to start improving every student’s skills.

This don’t-waste-a-day approach is working: Over the past two years, the district has increased the number of kindergarten through third-grade students who are reading at grade level and has decreased special education referrals.

Six years ago, when Superintendent Karen Couch arrived in Moriarty, which is located 30 miles east of Albuquerque, enthusiasm for reading was lagging. “It became evident that we needed to boost our reading program,” she says. “Our scores were not as good as we would have liked.”

Since then, the district, with the help of the board, a cadre of select administrators and teachers, and Reading First funds, developed a comprehensive reading program built on systematic assessment and targeted instruction, which they began to implement in full two years ago.

One of the cornerstones of Moriarty’s program is what’s called the “Walk to Read” model. Students receive the instruction most appropriate to their performance level during an uninterrupted, 90-minute reading block. To provide targeted instruction starting on the first day of school, administrators and teachers must determine individual students’ reading levels beforehand so they can organize them into homogeneous, ability-leveled groups, explains Laura Moffitt, the district’s federal programs coordinator.

Starting Early
Teachers receive a mini stipend for coming in the week before school starts and administering the popular early literacy assessment, the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicator of Basic Early Literacy Skills), to each student on their classroom roster. “It has become a really nice beginning to the year. It’s meet your teacher. It’s one-on-one,” says Moffitt.

Teachers use Wireless Generation’s handheld computers, which house the DIBELS along with several other early literacy assessments and the corresponding mCLASS platform. They use the handheld technology to administer the DIBELS subtests—which address letter recognition, phonics, phonemic awareness, and oral reading fluency—to students one-on-one and view the results instantaneously. After teachers test all their students, they sync the data from the handhelds at a central station so that the information is uploaded onto the mCLASS platform and can be viewed by multiple stakeholders.

After every student takes the initial benchmark test, teachers at each school get together to group students according to how each one did on the test. These results are organized into overall support recommendations—benchmark, strategic, and intensive—that indicate a student’s likelihood of achieving reading proficiency by the third grade. These categories allow for easy grouping so that targeted instruction can begin immediately.

The process continues throughout the school year. Teachers track student progress by giving two more benchmark assessments, one in the winter and one in the spring. Using the handhelds, they monitor progress monthly, bimonthly, or weekly, depending on the individual student’s risk level, and they meet with other teachers on their grade level on a monthly basis to analyze and discuss the data they gather. “Now, for the first time, we know where the need is, how to change our instruction,” explains Moffitt. “And the DIBELS data show if things are actually working.”

To support this process at Edgewood Elementary School, Principal Julie Roark and reading coach Sharon Hagin hold a grade-level meeting after school for 90 minutes every Tuesday—a day set aside district-wide for data analysis. Prior to the meeting, Hagin creates an agenda, prints out the data stored on mCLASS, and supplies teachers with a data analysis sheet to complete
during the meeting.

We’re In This Together
The team aspect is emphasized at every step. The text at the top of the data analysis sheet reads, “As a team, we are responsible for all students to be on level by May.” This is a statement those at Edgewood take seriously. “We’ve really done a good job of ‘It’s not my student, it’s our student,’” says Hagin.This feeling of collective responsibility is encouraged at the monthly meetings, where Roark and Hagin, along with the special education teacher and the grade-level teachers, list and talk about all of the students who are below grade level and the areas with which they are struggling. Together, the group determines whether students are progressing at the prescribed rate, represented by an aim line displayed on a graph shown on the handheld computer screen. They discuss and document any changes that need to be made to the reading groups, whether certain students require intervention and what that should be. They also assess whether those interventions are working and which staff members are responsible for documenting each student’s progress and making changes when necessary.

The Result: Student Pride
The teachers at Edgewood not only share data with one another, they also share results with students. “The students want to see their graphs as soon as they’re finished [testing],” explains Roark. “Sometimes I have to instruct the students to not disturb the class to announce their scores to the rest of the students.” This practice, according to Roark and Hagin, generates student ownership of their own reading achievement.

“You can walk into a classroom and ask a student what their goal is, and they can tell you where they are, and where they need to be the next time,” explains Roark. Adds Moffitt, “The students recognize that it’s not just us giving them a grade. It’s their effort that is tied to their achievement.”

A Common Language
One of the greatest advantages to having a standardized assessment that yields data immediately and is accessible to multiple stakeholders is that it allows everyone to speak the same language. Through giving the assessment, analyzing the data, and discussing their instructional practice, teachers are developing a standard way of talking about teaching reading.
“The level of professionalism among all our K-through-2 teachers has risen,” says Moffitt. In fact, many of the district’s teachers have chosen to enroll in the College of Santa Fe to pursue a reading endorsement.

The greatest benefit, however, is a rise in student achievement. Last year, 91 percent of the district’s kindergartners finished the year on benchmark, and 75 percent of kindergarten through second-grade students ended the year on benchmark. “We’ve seen phenomenal growth. We’re very happy with that,” says Superintendent Couch. “But it motivates us to achieve similar success in other areas.” Will first-day math be far behind? @

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