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Laser Focus on Reading Produces Good Results

Data Analysis, New Program Boost Student Scores

At Grandville’s East Elementary School, their double-digits gains in the M-STEP third- and fourth-grade reading scores was driven home by Principal Ana Aleman-Putman’s determination to push for excellence. That’s despite 71 percent of East’s students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

“We worked hard,” Aleman-Putman said. “Our wonderful teachers, amazing paraprofessionals, and great parents decided that we wouldn’t be categorized because we have the highest number of free and reduced lunch in the district. We are the little engine that could — we are going to make it happen.”

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In her first year helming East Elementary, Aleman-Putman focused on reading with relentless probing of the K-6 school’s assessments and data. Instead of pulling out students for personal instruction, a paraprofessional swooped into the classroom to give the entire class an outsize push toward higher reading performance.

While Aleman-Putman lasered in on the first tier, her staff dug deep into data analysis and collaboration. She says that’s what made the difference.

“We decided to meet every six to eight weeks to be diagnostic about our approach, scrutinize our strategies, our students, to challenge ourselves,” said Aleman-Putman, former principal of Burton Elementary in Grand Rapids. “The staff came to data meetings with solid evidence about where their students were at.”

A fourth-grader reads Michael Dahl’s “Really Scary Stories” at East Elementary

Aiming High for Transformation

Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Scott Merkel is after that kind of transformation, a paradigm shift in teaching students to read.

“We’ll be remiss not to recognize the exceptional work of our kindergarten through second-grade teachers, who worked really hard over the last of couple of years on the basics,” Merkel said.

East Elementary boosted its third-grade M-STEP reading score by 13.5 percent to 71 percent, and South Elementary revved up by 10.6 percent to 70.2 percent. The district looks to celebrate such successes — but also to understand better ways to cultivate reading, comprehension, and critical thinking.

Other schools also made impressive gains in reading scores:

  • Fourth-graders at East registered a 24 percent jump, while those at Cummings, West and Century Park Learning Center all rose by more than 10 percent.
  • Fifth- and sixth-graders also made double-digit gains: Central Elementary fifth-graders jumped 10.2 percent to 85.2 percent; their peers at South Elementary racked up a 9.8 percent improvement; and at East, the sixth-graders’ scores rose 5.6 percent.
Fourth-graders at East Elementary made impressive gains on the M-STEP English language arts test

Through a districtwide professional development program, introduced first at Central Elementary School last year, Grandville is implementing at Cummings and East Trish Martin’s Unlocking the Reading Code – a reading literacy program that teaches students to master the 44 sounds of the English language and the six syllable types to become independent word detectives.

Rather than memorize lists of high-frequency words, the district seeks to focus on new ways for students to learn to read and spell.

“We want to get at the roots of language, understanding the rules. When you know all those rules, you can decode words, read words, and you can understand how the language goes together,” Merkel said.

“You don’t have to memorize words because you learn how to figure them out. When students do that, they’re successful.”

Two East Elementary fourth-grade students co-read a book together
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