One of my favorite Christmas stories is Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Last week, after reviewing our most recent benchmark test data, I felt like Gladys Herdman in the last line of the book when she yells out, "Hey! Unto you a child is born!" Only I wanted to shout, "Hey! It can be done!"
For those of you who have read my earlier blog entries, I have continually lamented over one grade level of our students. These are the kindergarten children I worked with when I first went to Brighton four years ago. I often refer to these children as the "snake group" as they are the ones who had snakes living in the walls of their kindergarten classroom. This group of children (now in fourth grade) won my heart that first year. However, they've continued to weigh heavy on my mind as they have been so underserved by our school.
Last year, when they started third grade, more than 80 percent were at-risk according to our state's reading assessment. In October this year, 47 percent were considered at-risk. Last week, after analyzing our benchmark tests, I can say that this group is finally and definitely making real progress.
What did it take for this to happen? For one thing, some very non-traditional scheduling. Last May, after a school walk-through by folks from the Alabama Reading Initiative, I sat down with our ARI Principal Coach (yes, they actually have coaches who help principals become leaders of reading instruction!), the State Peer Assistant for School Improvement, our principal, and Brighton's in-house reading coach. We decided something had to be done for these students immediately. We all realized they could not afford another dysfunctional year with little progress. The window of opportunity for these children to become readers was closing rapidly.
During the summer months, we worked diligently on a plan. Our principal committed to adding a new class unit to this grade level to keep the class size to 12 or less. This strategy had been tried before with few positive results. So this time we looked carefully at the strengths of our faculty and made the decision to have all the reading in grades 3 and 4 taught by our two strongest teachers and one new hire. (The new hire was a gamble that has turned out well.)
In addition, our reading coach assigned six other people including special education teachers, a speech teacher, and one paraprofessional to work with this group during our 30-minute intervention period. This additional support created clusters of five students or less for small-group intervention. All teachers involved went through training in the use of a very intensive scripted reading intervention program, and they continue to have monthly coaching from the program's consultant. Our core-reading program was also added to fourth grade with teacher training and monthly coaching.
Our entire schedule for our K-5 building was restructured to insure optimum instructional time for this group. Our third grade teachers agreed to teach reading in the content area for Social Studies and Science. Teachers in other grades accepted schedules that were not always convenient to make these adjustments for this fourth grade class. Our principal, reading coach, and myself made pleas to our faculty about the entire school taking on these nine-year-olds. Everyone has risen to the challenge.
There were so many times I thought this group of students would leave our school as non-readers. Now I can finally say most of these nine year-olds are really reading! This is the best Christmas present ever! What could be better a gift for a child than the ability to read? So let me say, in the true spirit of the season: "Hey! It can be done!"