Reforming the System: Low-Achieving Schools

“We all realized that trying to fix a broken system was not the answer,” says Jerry Allen, principal of Lackland City Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas. “We worked year after year using our regular reading curriculum, but we were never satisfied with the results. We would tweak it here and change it there. But it was the same basal adoption curriculum. I saw teacher after teacher hit the wall,” recounts Allen, who describes his students as predominantly Hispanic and low-income. “After several years, you get to the point that you say ‘I know I’m a bright person. I’m working very very hard, but my students are not progressing as they should.’ And it is there that you slide down into a sea of mediocrity.”

Allen’s school put together a committee of 10 people whose sole responsibility for that year was to investigate reading programs that were successfully serving economically disadvantaged children. After combing through research, the committee got interested in a reading program that called for dramatic restructuring. Eventually they convinced the entire faculty to give it a try.

With a green light from the school’s superintendent and a unanimous vote by teachers, the new program came to Lackland City Elementary School. Reading teachers put aside their old methods and wiped the slate clean.

Since launching the program three years ago, the school’s average reading scores have risen across the board by about 15 percent each year. Currently the average reading scores are in the 72nd percentile, up from the mid-40th percentile.

“We kind of adopted the philosophy that, no matter what we do, our children must read. They can’t be successful at mathematics and social studies if they can’t read. Reading became our primary goal,” says Allen. “I told my teachers that those 90 minutes of reading class was sacred time.”

Allen claims that teacher training produces the greatest impact. “Rather than having a couple of reading specialists work with the bottom quartile of students, all the teachers on campus are now master reading teachers working with 100 percent of the students.”

The cost? It’s expensive.

“You get what you pay for,” according to Allen. “This model has so many safety nets and support systems, the teacher just has to take the first step as soon as a child first stumbles. But he or she can’t wait. I take it a bit further and tell the teachers. ‘You may not under any circumstances allow a child to fail in your room.’”

The Model

The program used in Jerry Allen’s school is a school-wide reading reform model that was established in Baltimore in 1987. Now in 450 districts nationwide, the program serves children in districts ranging from some of the largest cities in the country to small rural villages. Just about all of these schools serve high-poverty students.

Like any school-wide reform model, this one requires broad support. Teachers are asked to put aside familiar methods and accept a new system. They receive three days of in-service training at the beginning of the school year, plus continuing in-service meetings.

The emphasis is on early intervention and prevention. A rigorous reading period lasts for one and one-half to two hours. Teachers at every grade level begin each session by reading a story aloud to children. The class then discusses the meaning, vocabulary, and structure of the story. In kindergarten and first grade, teachers focus on oral language and prereading skills. They ask students to retell and dramatize literature, as well as compose their own oral stories. The program also emphasizes phonemic awareness. In kindergarten or grade one, children begin with mini books, which they can read even if they know just a few letter sounds.

Children are grouped according to ability and disperse to their various levels during reading periods. Every eight weeks, they are reevaluated and, if it is warranted, moved along.

One major goal of the program is to keep children in the regular classroom and out of special education. Individual tutoring is key. Children who are falling behind the class receive 20-minute sessions with a teacher or tutor each day during times other than reading or math periods. The focus is the same material covered during the regular reading class. Other features include a bilingual curriculum, parent outreach, and a program facilitator at each school whose full-time job is to help the teachers to implement the model.

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