WebExtra: Best practices to raise reading scores

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Johns: Driven by assessment

Last school year, three students at Vernon Johns Community Academy in Englewood were killed by neighborhood violence. To help children cope with the trauma, the school “had crisis teams here throughout the year,” says Principal Connell McFarland. “But the teaching never stopped.”

Whether the school’s approach will be enough to keep reading achievement on the rise at Johns won’t be clear until the state releases final scores on its new reading test, the Stanford Learning First, which debuted last year. But Johns had already made significant progress: reading scores on the Iowa (scrapped in favor of Learning First) were at 39 percent in 2004-05, up from 24 percent the previous year and from the teens or single digits for most of the 1990s.

Johns has also cut the number of students whose scores fall in the bottom 25 percent and increased the number of students in the top quartile. The school is the only one in Englewood on the Designs for Change list of 144 schools that have made substantial improvements in reading scores since the first wave of school reform.

Regular assessment and tailoring of instruction to meet kids’ needs are major factors in improving scores, according to Johns staff. “I want the school to be assessment-driven,” says McFarland. “The data will show you where the strengths and weaknesses are and then you get the professional development to address that.”

McFarland, who came to Johns last year, recalls that the school was orderly and well-run. “The kids were in uniforms, the school was clean, so I’ve been able to focus on instruction.”

Students take reading assessments the first week of school, so teachers can determine where children fall short. “Are they struggling with vocabulary?” says Tina Curry, an 8th-grade reading teacher. (Curry recently left the school.) “Maybe they can’t infer. We try to find problems common to the majority and address them.” For those who need extra help, a special education teacher, whose expertise is working with children who have reading difficulties, comes to Curry’s class each day to work with small groups of students.

Curry’s class provides students with exposure to nonfiction reading, which is included on state tests. Readings are sometimes connected to what students are learning in social studies or science class. This fall, for instance, students read articles on the Titanic, humpback whales and hurricanes. “We want them to get comfortable with this kind of reading,” says Curry.

Johns also has a lead literacy teacher who models lessons for teachers and attends grade-level meetings to suggest ways to support struggling readers. Teachers use common planning time “to bounce ideas off each other,” says Curry.

Drake: Differentiating instruction for learning

When Principal Yvonne Jones arrived at Drake Elementary in Douglas two years ago, reading scores were at almost 50 percent—almost doubled what they were in 1997 and up dramatically from the single digits in the 1990s. So Jones says she didn’t feel the need to do much tinkering.

“We had a smooth transition and it seemed like everything here worked well,” says Jones, who was hired by the local school council to succeed Delena Little, now Area 17 instructional officer. (Jones had been interim principal at Fulton in New City.)

Little was a strong principal who kept discipline problems to a minimum and the school focused on literacy, says Donna Bronson, a veteran 6th- through 8th-grade literature and writing teacher.

“First, you have to have classroom management, so our professional development focused on that,” says Bronson. “Then, we focused on reading strategies and differentiated [instruction and] learning.” Two literacy teachers work with classroom teachers on tailoring instruction to address specific reading deficiencies, as well as provide other coaching.

About five years ago, Bronson says, the school switched from whole-class reading instruction to small ability-level groups. “Students don’t all learn in the same way or at the same rate,” she says.

Drake also receives tutoring assistance from three community partners. Students from the nearby Illinois College of Optometry work individually with students during class once a week. And the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the investment firm Segall, Bryant & Hamill provide after-school tutoring once a week. Students are bused to both workplaces.

Both programs are organized through Working in the Schools, a nonprofit that matches volunteers with schools.

The school relies on basal readers, as well as novels for the upper grades.

Drake also picks a curricular focus each year. This year, the focus is on writing. Teachers set writing goals aligned with state standards, then devised appropriate lesson plans. Students will take three school-level assessments during the year so that teachers can gauge their progress and track improvement.

The Illinois State Board of Education plans to reinstate writing tests in next year’s ISAT, and CPS is considering including writing as a factor in promotion.

Marshall Middle: Going beyond textbooks

Newspapers, magazines and primary source materials rather than traditional textbooks are staples in Caroline Ansani’s social studies class at Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

Reading these materials helps with reading skills and “makes history come alive,” Ansani says. “We do the same in science. We’re constantly giving them lots of different reading materials.”

Marshall also relies on basal readers combined with literature, and extensive work on vocabulary, to help boost reading scores, Ansani says. Scores at the Irving Park school rose from 37 percent at or above national norms in 1997 to 53 percent in 2005.

Stable leadership and a stable staff have also been important, says reading coach Mary Ann Brandt. “We have a lot of voice in what’s done and a principal who really empowers teachers,” says Brandt of Principal Jose Barillas, who has been at Marshall since 1991. “People love working here. They don’t leave. Any time a decision is made, like selecting a reading series, it’s done by teacher consensus.”

Teachers work in teams to create a small-school feeling, and students are assigned to the same teacher for 7th and 8th grade. “It builds strong relationships over the two years,” says Brandt.

Reading is taught by both subject-area teachers and language arts teachers, with Brandt providing professional development. Teachers sometimes read aloud to students, and students are encouraged to read aloud to themselves after they’ve prepared for the material through classroom discussion.

“We don’t encourage cold reading for students,” says Ansani. “It’s good if they have some prior knowledge. When students see the benefit of strategies like this, they use them and it really helps.”

Struggling readers are targeted with three after-school tutoring programs and with small- group instruction during the day. Ansani says the Learning First assessment, which the district adopted when it scrapped the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, has helped staff determine how to assist weaker readers. “We can see if they’re having a problem with fluency, with vocabulary,” she says. “Then we know what to work on.”

Carnegie: ‘Balanced literacy’ for achievement

A stable and cohesive staff, high-quality professional development and a “balanced literacy” reading program have contributed to steady increases in reading scores at Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn, says Principal Darlene Pollard.

Balanced literacy combines phonics with literature-rich activities, and often uses a combination of whole-class and small-group instruction. A lead literacy teacher models instructional techniques.

“I like the approach because it provides the children with real literature (instead of passages in basal readers) and gives them experience with different genres,” says Pollard. “Students also do a lot of independent reading where they can pick what they want to read.”

Using small-group instruction, Pollard adds, gives teachers a better opportunity to address the problems of struggling readers.

Carnegie also has a gifted program in kindergarten through 6th grade and an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program for the upper grades, which have helped bring in more families from outside Woodlawn. Pollard concedes that the students in these special programs have helped raise Carnegie’s overall averages, but adds that higher-scoring students are only “a small population of our school.”

Carnegie has also cut the share of children who scored in the bottom half of test-takers by almost 10 percentage points since 1997.