New reading specialists getting a thumbs up

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In August, Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan put out a call for 114 reading specialists to work with teachers in elementary schools where less than 25 percent of students score at grade level in reading.

More than 350 teachers answered, reports the CPS Department of Human Resources. Three-quarters were from CPS. By late October, 71 had been selected, given two weeks of intense training and sent to schools. Others were to complete training and start in schools by Nov. 5. Beyond the neediest schools, an additional 30 that have paid for their own literacy coordinators or other similar positions sent those people to training.

CPS reading initiative director Timothy Shanahan, who served on the National Reading Panel while directing the University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for Literacy, says that at least half have experience providing professional development. “That’s better than I would have guessed,” he adds.

The new reading specialists come from a variety of situations. One left Texas and moved to Chicago for the job.

Another, Aisha McCarthy, had to have her arm twisted even though she holds a master’s degree in reading and teaches reading instruction at Chicago State University. Her mother urged her to apply, but she resisted, saying, “I’m just not ready yet.” But then a recruiting letter arrived at her home. “Wow,” she thought. “They’re really seeking people out.”

McCarthy is now the reading specialist at Donoghue Elementary.

Meanwhile, Trinidad Liberto, reading specialist at Roque de Duprey Elementary, is keeping the job she’s worked for the last five years. Duprey had been using a Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant to pay Liberto’s salary, and the board money came in just as the grant funds ran out.

“When this ran out, it was a perfect continuation,” says Liberto. And central office involvement is getting her new respect. In previous years, she says, “It was difficult to do the classroom observations. This year it’s a little different because the board is telling everybody it’s an important position.”

Shanahan and his staff interviewed and screened candidates. For school placement, he consulted with principals, especially when more than one candidate applied from their school. In schools with no in-house candidate, Shanahan’s office referred candidates to principals, who made the final selection.

Shanahan himself will supervise and evaluate the specialists. “A lot of times these positions get cannibalized—they become assistant principals, they become cadre substitutes—and we won’t let them do that,” he says. Though he admits to a case where a specialist changed schools in a conflict with a principal over duties, he says that, over all, principals seem to be accepting the reporting arrangement.

Most principals Catalyst spoke with are simply glad to be able devote one person’s time solely to reading. “I don’t see a conflict here. I see help,” says Principal Carl Lawson of Price Elementary. “What she’s going to be doing is exactly what I would have had her do. And you’re going to pay for them too? Well, that’s great. Send us three more!”

In fact, these schools also received one extra board-funded teacher to help reduce class size in the primary grades.

“I love Tim Shanahan,” raves JoAnn Roberts, former intervention director and now interim principal of Donoghue Elementary. “I think that whether they’re responsible to Tim or whoever, in the building they’re working with the principal.”

The reading specialist’s primary duties are to coach teachers on reading strategies, observe their progress, and obtain the resources necessary for them to teach reading well. Coaching may take a variety of forms, from presentations during staff development time to giving demonstration lessons in classrooms to observing teachers as they try out strategies in their classrooms and giving them feedback. “I expect 80 to 100 percent of their time to be working with teachers,” says Shanahan.

Over half of the specialists’ two-week training period was devoted to the new CPS reading instruction framework. Developed by Shanahan, the framework emphasizes four areas of literacy instruction: word knowledge, fluency, comprehension and writing. The framework has some similarity to the Four Blocks program used at McCosh Elementary under Barbara Eason-Watkins, who is now chief education officer. While Four Blocks is geared for grades one to three, Shanahan’s framework is applicable from prekindergarten through upper elementary and even high school.

“This is not a program,” he cautions. “This is not like a basal reader series.” Rather, it’s an attempt to ensure schools provide instruction in the four areas that together define literacy. (See sidebar: “Literacy components.”)

The reading specialists are part of a larger program that also includes systemwide elements: a requirement that every elementary school spend two hours each day on literacy instruction, and $500 for each primary classroom to start or add to its classroom library.

At Medill Elementary, reading specialist Geraldine Woolfolk, a former trainer with the CPS Teachers Academy for Professional Development, has been observing classes and helping teachers delve deeper into teaching reading. “So far it’s going really well,” she says. Teachers working in new grade levels this year have been among the first to line up for her services.

“When I started my observations the first week, the first teacher I went up to said, ‘This is new for me. I would appreciate it if you would come in and model for me.’ So I did.”

Woolfolk has also been instrumental in jump-starting classroom libraries. She says teachers’ fears that books would disappear if children took them home are being dispelled. “[The children] have been really excited about taking books home to read to their parents, and they’ve been bringing them back,” she says. “The teachers have been really surprised.”

The reading initiative also includes some hold-harmless money for schools that had been expecting an infusion from the Comprehensive Approach to Student Achievement (CASA) program, which was aborted in June. (See story: “CASA on hold for now pending leader lineup,” June 2001.) Schools that had been tapped for CASA but are not on probation will receive $30,000 to spend on teacher training to improve reading.