Emphasis on reading is starting to pay off
CHAMPAIGN – David Bales said success sometimes comes slowly in fourth-grade reading class, but when it happens, it can be amazing.
"Some students get all the way through high school without discovering the joy of reading, but our class had a chance to experience that discovery," said Bales, a teacher at Westview School, where reading skills have become a priority.
"One student found a book she loved," he said. "She couldn't put it down. She read it all weekend. The discovery changed her outlook at school. Books are powerful."
Educators in schools all over the country try to get that message across to students every day, and they're under a lot of pressure to improve performance because the federal government is wielding a big stick: funding and sanctions accompanying the No Child Left Behind legislation.
Teachers and principals in Champaign and Urbana elementary and middle schools closely monitor students' annual performance on Illinois Standards Achievement Tests that determine if schools make adequate yearly progress, a measure of reading and math skills with a bar that keeps moving up.
Last March and in March 2006, for example, 47.5 percent of students tested in a school must meet or exceed state standards – up from 40 percent in 2004 – for a school to make adequate progress. Subgroups must hit a 37 percent target in reading and math, but there are some exceptions to that rule: so-called "Safe Harbor" rules that allow graduated gains in some cases.
In Champaign, all elementary schools met math and reading standards except Garden Hills, which narrowly missed in reading last spring. This year, Principal Cheryl O'Leary has launched an all-out campaign to target instruction, get books into kids' hands and get students excited about reading improvement.
All Urbana elementary schools hit the target in both subjects.
On the other hand, none of the cities' middle and high schools made adequate progress.
"It's a challenge every year," said Joan Fortschneider, principal of Urbana's Wiley School. "But it's not so much doing well on the test. It's the fact that these are the state standards, and kids need to meet them to be successful."
Fortschneider's school failed to make adequate progress in reading in 2003 because of black students' scores.
"It's terrible, really hard the year we didn't make it because we were the only elementary, and we felt like we stuck out like a sore thumb," she said." It's discouraging for all teachers."
Black and economically disadvantaged children at Westview in Champaign failed to make it in reading in 2003 and 2004.
"We were devastated," Principal Trevor Nadrozny said. "We'd made an effort. We'd tried different things. We said, 'We need to think outside the box.' Our first thought was to give black and low-income students extra help, but then we thought, 'Let's do it right.'"
Both Westview and Wiley used a similar approach.
"We decided to do something that works for all kids," Nadrozny said. "We restructured reading time throughout the school. We brought in special education teachers and literacy specialists, and everyone goes to the classroom so you have three or four adults with reading groups.
"This model adds enrichment so material's presented in different ways. It adds independent groups to challenge children reading at a high level. Everyone is responsible for all kids."
Fortschneider and her teachers also took a schoolwide approach, beginning in 1999.
"We appointed three schoolwide improvement teams, one for literacy, one for assessments and one for school climate," she said. "We looked at the whole program and at curriculum. Reading's the basis for everything, and we decided to bring all kids up – starting with kindergarten."
In elementary schools, children have been tested on reading and math skills in third and fifth grades. But next spring for the first time, fourth-graders also will be tested.
Wiley started using a common assessment for reading, and every child takes the test.
"We used to communicate at a level that was subject to interpretation," Wiley fourth-grade teacher Richard Clift said of the assessments. "Now we're all using the same measures. When a new student enrolls, he or she is given the assessment right away. Before, it might have been six to eight weeks before we know where that student was."
"We're identifying where students are, what their needs are, we're seeing what our instruction is doing and using data to set new goals for our students," said Marcie Vancil, a third-grade teacher at Wiley. "We're working daily at the architecture of our teaching."
Fortschneider surveyed teachers to find out how much time they spent reading with all students, then set aside 120 minutes daily for reading in most classes. That time is sacred.
"Everyone's together," Fort-schneider said. "No special programs, no assemblies, no interruptions."
"Some teachers had a lot of time for reading, and some had almost no time," Clift said. "Before, we had kids pulled out for math instruction during reading time and kids pulled out for reading instruction during math."
Westview's reading program has been so successful, other schools are looking at it. Reading specialist Carol Tyler said Carrie Busey is starting to use the same methods, Dr. Howard has modified the program to fit the school's needs, and Barkstall also is looking at it.
Westview expanded guided reading from third and fifth grades last year to fourth this year. Bales liked it immediately.
"If you have one teacher in a room working with 24 kids, you're trusting a lot of those kids to work at their desks while the teacher helps the kids who need it the most," he said. "This model gets all kids' minds engaged."
Bales said 70 percent to 75 percent of the fourth-graders need guided reading.
"They will do fine in a class with one teacher," Bales said. "I have students in my class reading at the Junie B. Jones level, and I have students reading Harry Potter. That's the range of abilities."
Westview third-grade teacher Amy Roberts said she's excited about the reading program.
"ISATs are always on your mind, but the awesome benefit of using this reading approach is, you feel like you're really meeting kids' needs and doing all you can to prepare them to meet state standards," Roberts said. "I feel good about that."
Mahomet-Seymour, Monticello set standard
MAHOMET – Principals at two central Illinois high schools with scores at the top on state achievement tests say there's no secret to their success.
Mahomet-Seymour's Del Ryan and Monticello's Tip Reedy said day-to-day attention to details makes their schools run smoothly and their students perform successfully on all-important Prairie State Achievement Examinations.
And that includes cultivating relations and communications with parents, who are highly involved in their children's academic and extracurricular lives, and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect in the schools.
"We have good discipline here," said Lauren Burke, a senior at Mahomet-Seymour. "Through student council, I've visited some other schools where teachers just don't have control. Here, students respect the teachers and we get respect back."
The schools also make sure day-to-day curriculum covers all the bases necessary for test success, from kindergarten through high school.
As a result of their attention to detail, both this year made the Chicago Sun-Times list of the top 50 high schools in the state.
"It's a wonderful recognition, but to me, it's a reward for trying to do things well," said Ryan, who's been with the district 29 years and has been principal since 1998. "It's important to me that we've been on the list three years in a row. It starts with kindergarten and builds so everyone in the system should feel the honor."
"We pride ourselves on our rigorous curriculum," said Reedy, who became principal this year. "We're constantly reinforcing our material so math's not just taught in math class. We relate it to all areas. Our faculty has high expectations for themselves. They take a lot of ownership."
"It goes back to parents," math teacher Kyle Ness said of the atmosphere in his classes and in the halls at Monticello. "We cherish their involvement. We expect to be respected, and we give respect in turn. Top to bottom, everyone's involved in creating that atmosphere and striving to do their best. It's easy to teach here."
Marty Williams, vice principal at Mahomet, said the district looks for teachers with excellent credentials who enjoy life and working with children.
"The teachers really need to understand that they must deliver the goods or the kids and the teachers will let us know," Williams said.
"If you aren't teaching at a high level, you don't want to be teaching here," Ryan said.
Debbie Flock, an English teacher at Monticello for 21 years, said the school's extended class schedule makes a difference.
"I've taught half my career on a traditional schedule and half on a block schedule," she said of the school's program with 84-minute classes, four each day. "You don't cover as much material, but you do it more thoroughly than you can in 42-minute classes. Kids have time to start their homework right in front of you so you can see the kids who don't get it.
"And we have a 20-minute resource period at the end of the day, and there are 48 hours between classes so a student has two opportunities to come in to get help."
Eric Potter, who has taught math at Mahomet-Seymour for six years, says he has high standards for students – and they live up to them.
"We have intelligent, gifted, motivated students and at the same time, the atmosphere here isn't cutthroat like it is in some suburban schools, where if you don't get into Princeton, your life is over," Potter said. "We have all the music, sports and other activities as a larger school, but we're small enough so kids don't get lost in the crowd."
Potter teaches two advanced placement classes, mainly to seniors. "I treat them like college kids," he said. "They're all responsible. I have no discipline problems. We stay relaxed and I try to make them feel comfortable in class."
"We don't teach to the test, we teach to kids' abilities," said Ness at Monticello. "And we don't drill. We think our curriculum is set up to meet state standards. We tell students why tests are important, and we tell them we want to excel in every area. They do the rest."
"I'm one of the 'hard' teachers," Flock said. "I set high expectations, and kids work to meet them. I tell them, 'You will be ready for freshman English when you're in college.'" Both Ryan and Reedy know they don't have to face some issues that trouble administrators in urban districts like Champaign and Urbana.
Ryan's school is about 98 percent white with a poverty rate of about 8 percent. He said he'd like to see more diversity, but he realizes his school's homogeneity gives teachers and staff members a chance to focus on teaching and students, not distractions.
Ryan and Reedy at Monticello, where the student body's also about 98 percent white, said education should be color blind. But teachers in both districts try to expose students to other cultures to help them understand them.
Ryan and Reedy said the almost universal parental support at their schools also gives them powerful options.
"We don't have to deal with issues away from direct education process," Ryan said. "We have great support and we can stay focused, and not all districts have that. We're about education, and we don't tolerate disturbances."
"We have a wide range of classes and our students pull together, " M-S senior Joel Gher said. "We don't have conflicts, and that makes a good atmosphere. Our teachers make it fun."