Reading initiative makes strides in high schools

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As the Chicago Reading Initiative gears up for its second year in the high schools, most people involved agree it has made strides in bringing teachers up to speed on teaching reading in their subject areas and in creating better teacher training.

However, central office officials, principals and teachers have different views about what to expect in year 2.

Looking back on the first year, most say the initiative has made headway. “I definitely think [the reading initiative] had some positive effect,” says Meg Arbeiter, who taught English last year at Hirsch High. (She is now with ACT Charter School.) “I wouldn’t say it was revolutionary, but there was evidence of teachers practicing what was being preached. There actually was discussion of some really cool strategies and ideas.”

A year after it was introduced in elementary schools, CPS launched its reading initiative in high schools last September with the goal of improving students’ reading achievement by boosting teachers’ knowledge of reading and instructional skills.

The result is that all high school teachers now know they need to help students read strategically and decipher difficult texts and must enhance their own training in reading instruction. The price tag for the 2004 fiscal year is $2.9 million, up from $765,000 last year, which will pay for additional professional development for reading coaches, tuition to teachers to underwrite reading coursework and a pilot reading program in 6th through 8th grades.

But while reading officials have ambitious goals for year 2, high school principals and teachers warn the initiative may be moving too fast for teachers to keep up. For example, teachers say they were exposed to the four-part literacy framework—word knowledge, fluency, comprehension and writing—for only a semester before they moved on to other topics.

During the first-year rollout, high schools created literacy teams, made up of one teacher from each core subject area (English, math, science and social studies), a special education teacher, and the principal or assistant principal. The teams completed summer training sessions that introduced the literacy framework, and later met monthly for follow-up workshops.

Teams also provided 40 hours of training to teachers in their schools. Though only core subject teachers were required to attend this training, some principals extended it to all staff. “We brought it back for everybody,” says Principal John Butterfield of Mather High. “We’re all in this together—let’s get busy.”

A challenge the initiative faced in high schools was finding staff with the appropriate background in reading. Currently, each high school area has a team of content specialists with reading credentials, but identifying those people and assembling the teams took some time, says Jennifer Hester, director of secondary reading for the Chicago Reading Initiative.

Few literacy team members in high schools have extensive backgrounds in reading, unlike reading specialists in elementary schools.

Hester stresses that high school teachers are not expected to teach reading per se; rather, they should be using the reading framework and associated strategies to give students the tools they need to read material in core subject areas.

Unlike the elementary school reading component, which requires teachers to teach reading for two hours daily, the time requirements are more flexible for high schools, says Hester. Teachers must integrate all four aspects of the literacy framework throughout their lesson plans, and principals are expected to hold teachers accountable as part of their routine reviews of the plans.

Like many new efforts, implementation of the reading initiative varied considerably by school. “Our area officers were very impressed with how we were going about this,” says Sarah Spachman, literacy team member at Curie High. But “we still feel like we’re very much in the learning stages.”

That’s fine by Hester. “We realize that this is a developmental process. We don’t expect them all to be in the same place at the same time.”

Area instructional officers are pleased with the initial progress. “We really brought a lot of coherence and just good, solid professional development, and set a solid structure in all of our high schools,” observes Cynthia Barron, who oversees high schools in Area 24. She says teachers are much more aware that they need to use explicit strategies to help students through challenging, content-heavy reading, such as in science and social studies.

Schools, especially those on probation, are shifting away from emphasizing timed readings for test preparation, instead giving students tools they need to analyze text, notes Barron. But an in-depth review of strategies didn’t happen during the first year, she adds.

Program praised by some

Some literacy team members praise the initiative for giving them a leg up on helping students read. This year, Hester hopes that impact will expand beyond the literacy teams to more high school teachers. However, the teams are expected to provide training in areas related to reading strategies and go beyond that to train teachers to analyze student work and create assessments.

But some team members were afraid to tackle this new topic since they had just gotten their feet wet working with colleagues on the literacy framework.

Hester acknowledges the initial workshop that taught teams to assess student work was flawed. “That did interrupt our process last year,” she says. “We went back in February and redid the workshop.” But she insists it was necessary to make an immediate connection to student work. “The real telling isn’t in teacher implementation, it’s in student work that reflects solid progress,” she says.

This fall, Hester says teams will expand professional development into additional arenas, such as how to use reading and writing to assess student progress in their disciplines and how to help students analyze their own thinking when they encounter reading and writing roadblocks.

Also this year, all freshmen who scored below the 50th percentile on their 8th-grade Iowa Tests of Basic Skills must take a new yearlong course titled “Reading in the Language Arts.” Hester says the course will help struggling freshmen read expository texts across a variety of subjects. Students will earn a full elective credit for completing it.

The next step is to develop a formal evaluation for high school reading. Hester is working on the project with Daniel Bugler, chief officer of CPS Research, Evaluation and Accountability.

Reading officials are already encouraged by initial feedback. Douglas Buehl, a Wisconsin-based consultant who led reading workshops for CPS, has received e-mails from principals and teachers asking for more information about integrating reading strategies into teaching their subjects. “That’s rare,” he says, contrasting typical professional development workshops. “You [usually] never hear from these people again.”

Despite the accolades they’ve received for getting on board with the initiative, principals and teachers say they need time to assimilate what they’ve already learned. “You can teach old dogs new tricks, but it does take some time,” remarks Mather’s Butterfield. “This year, hopefully, we don’t have to come back with six or eight new ways [to teach reading].”

Hester acknowledges these sentiments. Though teachers may feel overwhelmed by what lay ahead, she says she is confident they will soon see connections to what they learned last year.

She also points out that some schools are ready and eager for more instruction. “You had some schools that had well-developed reading programs in place,” she says. “You need to have a developmental continuum where people can have a place to go.”