Rx for Better Readers: the Doctor is IN

The class settles down to listen to the antics of Clifford the Big Red Dog

Parkview Elementary first-grader Marquis Morgan grabbed a book from a bin containing those written at his reading level. He began paging through “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Books.”

Marquis, who keeps track of his reading with teacher Merry McKeown, will soon have more titles to choose from. New books– $10,000 worth funded by a grant from Herman Miller –will hit the Parkview classroom shelves shortly. With them will come a more consistent way of getting those books into the hands of the right students, and that’s just one of the efforts under way to boost reading scores at the school.

As part of an effort to bring literacy practices used at high-achieving schools into schools that want to see improvement, Parkview Elementary is receiving intervention as a lab school through Reading Now Network, a collaborative effort involving 100 districts to boost reading proficiency to 80 percent in 13 counties. Other lab schools are Moon Elementary in Muskegon Public Schools; Woodbridge Elementary in Zeeland Public Schools; and Big Jackson, a two-room schoolhouse with a four-day school week in Newaygo County.

Editor’s Note: The Road to Reading series explores some of the reading activities you’ll find in our schools as well as difficulties students may face when learning to read. The series also examines early childhood ties to literacy and new initiatives to help all children read.

More RNN related stories:

Isaac Garcia practices writing
Isaac Garcia practices writing

Helping Schools Boost Literacy

RNN was launched in spring 2014 involving Region 3 counties in West Michigan to examine best instructional practices at elementary schools with high reading success rates in order to implement them regionwide.

High-achieving public schools studied ranged from urban to rural, with varying levels of poverty. They were: Brown Elementary in Byron Center; North Godwin Elementary in Godwin Heights; Lakeshore Elementary in West Ottawa; Coit Creative Arts Academy in Grand Rapids and Sunfield Elementary in Lakeview.

Findings at those schools can help others that have had less success, experts say. Strategies recommended at Parkview and other lab schools tie back to common traits RNN teams found at the high-achieving schools. They included an uncompromising focus on reading (reading is included in every part of the school day); having teachers use assessment scores to focus on gaps and improve instruction; a strong sense of shared leadership among everyone in the school; strong classroom management; and a collective responsibility for every child’s success among teachers and other staff.

Lab schools, which receive a two-year commitment from RNN, are selected based on the percentage of third-graders who read proficiently in relation to the school’s rate of poverty. In other words, lab schools don’t have the level of proficient readers that other schools with similar poverty rates have, said Kyle Mayer, Ottawa ISD assistant superintendent who has helped lead RNN.

Nerissa Cruz puts together word puzzle
Nerissa Cruz puts together word puzzle

To make recommendations on what strategies will work at each school, 10-person RNN teams made up of instructional specialists visited classrooms at the lab schools, observed and took notes, and are now working to help implement the strategies.

Mayer said recommendations are like a prescription for each school made after an entire team of “doctors” that have observed the “patient,” or schools. The teams use the Harvard Model of Instructional Rounds, a practice adapted to education from the field of medicine, taught at the Harvard School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to assess the schools.

Every lab school has different needs. At Parkview, where 88 percent of families qualify for free and reduced lunch, the RNN team, including Kent ISD instructional coach Teresa McDougall, completed walkthroughs of the building, spending 10 minutes in each classroom and taking notes on literacy and the classroom environment.

Parkview has ample teachers and support people and a staff open to new ideas, they noted, but it lacks alignment in literacy instructional practices. Resources and tools, vocabulary and strategies vary from classroom to classroom.
Hearing that from an outside perspective is invaluable, said Principal Katie Jobson. She and teachers are eager to embrace all RNN recommendations:

  • Marquis Morgan chooses a book from a bin in his classroom
    Marquis Morgan chooses a book from a bin in his classroom

    Implement a building-wide, consistent book leveling system, meaning classrooms and grade levels will follow the same guidelines in identifying books for each reading level

  • Add more books to classrooms
  • Implement new strategies for students with the highest behavior needs
  • Implement 10 essential early literacy practices, which are researched as effective in “moving the needle” in proficiency.

“We said, ‘Yep, we’ll do all four of those,’ ” Jobson said, noting Parkview has already been doing parts of many of the practices, but will streamline and enhance them.

“It’s nice to have some help insaying, ‘Here are some things you can really do that should move the needle and here’s a group of people that can help,'” she said. “Sometimes we get tunnel vision and it’s good to have outside eyes… Instead of reinventing the wheel, they can help us connect with resources that exist or people that have knowledge.”

McDougall and Kent ISD early literacy coach Katie Momber work at the school weekly to coach and model literacy practices and provide professional development.

But it’s not about just handing over a list of directions, Momber said; RNN offers a reflection on where a school is at and helps it improve from there. “This is the story of each one of these districts. They’re going to be moving at their own pace and it’s going to look different at each school because they all need to make it unique to what their values and beliefs are in making these changes.

“It’s all about empowering the teachers and the staff to decide what’s best for them,” McDougall said.

Alvynn Carrasco said he loves reading about sharks
Alvynn Carrasco said he loves reading about sharks

Getting the Puzzle Pieces to Fit

Parkview also works with The Education Trust-Midwest, which focuses on developing teacher-leaders. Working in tandem with RNN allows RNN strategies to be implemented by teachers being trained as leaders to help other teachers, Jobson said.

“It’s been kind of cool to see all the pieces start to fit together,” Jobson said. “We have really come together to make a powerful force. Sometimes you feel like you have lots of loose ends. This feels like it’s all connected and moving in the same direction.”

RNN’s work can have a ripple effect. Wyoming Public Schools teachers plan to work with Parkview to implement strategies in the district’s other elementary schools, Jobson said.

RNN’s work also has good timing, Mayer said. Today’s kindergartners will be the first third-graders affected by legislation signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in October that requires students who are reading below grade level at the end of third grade to be held back until they reach proficiency.

“I do see this as a jump start toward what the new legislation wants schools to head toward,” Mayer said.

Ali Amonte focuses on words
Ali Amonte focuses on words

‘Going From Good to Great’

As her students broke into reading centers, McKeown said she’s sees working with RNN as a way of “going from good to great.” With more books in students’ hands and an improved book leveling system, she thinks Parkview students can better meet their goals.

“The kids know what reading level they are at currently; they know their goal for the end of the year,” McKeown said. “Teachers can then help them choose books that they can practice their reading strategies with that are at their reading level.”

First-grader Alvynn Carrassco hopes a few of the new books are on his favorite topic: sharks. “I know a lot about sharks,” he said. “When there are long words, I like to read them.”

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Reading Now Network

Education Trust-Midwest

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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