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Denver's public schools were in bad shape last year. Students were entering middle school -- even high school -- without basic reading skills, and the state had deemed more than half the schools in the district "low" or "unsatisfactory" based on their scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program exam. The district had to do something -- and they knew it had better be good. So starting last fall, administrators conducted an ambitious experiment to teach kids to read. They redefined jobs, trained teachers, hired specialists, reallocated millions of dollars, gave kids three hours of daily reading and writing instruction, and then waited to see what would happen.

On July 30, they found out. The results of the CSAP exams the kids took this past spring -- not even a full year after the district introduced its new program -- showed slight but consistent gains in reading and writing over the previous year for third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, who were the main recipients of the new literacy push ("Reading, Writing and CSAP Scores," March 13).

"The fact that this increase is across the board is pretty clear evidence that it isn't random," says Sally Mentor Hay, the chief academic officer who was hired to implement the literacy program. She and the district both credit the score improvements to the new efforts.

This year, 55 percent of third-graders scored proficient or above on the reading portion of the CSAP, compared with 50 percent last year; 35.5 percent were proficient or above on this year's writing portion, compared with 29 percent on last year's. In 2003, 37.3 percent of fourth-graders were proficient or above in reading, up from 35 percent the year before; 29 percent were proficient or above in writing, up just a point from 2002. Forty-one percent of fifth-graders in DPS scored proficient or above on this year's reading test, compared with 38 percent last year; 31 percent were proficient or above on the writing test, compared with 28 percent the year before. And the district's sixth-graders fared equally as well, with 38.5 percent scoring proficient or above on this year's reading test over last year's 37 percent, and 30.5 percent getting proficient or above on the writing portion, compared with 27 percent in 2002.

"What's key is how the schools implemented the program; you do see variation across the district in the results," Mentor Hay explains. "Some schools had really significant increases, and those were the ones that put a lot of effort and time into professional development."

For example, teachers at Harrington Elementary School had been providing intensive reading instruction long before DPS implemented its district-wide program, and their scores show it. Almost half the third-graders there scored proficient or above in reading this year, compared with 22 percent last year. Even Greenwood Elementary, a school that had been struggling to put the new literacy program in place, also improved, with 57 percent of third-graders scoring proficient or above on reading this year, compared with 41 percent last year.

The literacy program's success is bittersweet, however. Various foundations had donated money to DPS to kick-start the initiative, but when those five-month and year-long grants came to an end recently, they weren't renewed. "Typically, foundations provide funding to get programs going with the expectation that if it's recognized as valuable, the district would pay for it," says Mentor Hay.

DPS had used foundation grants to pay the Institute for Learning, a University of Philadelphia think tank where Mentor Hay is a fellow, for her services. The $300,000 contract not only covered her $150,000 salary and travel expenses -- she commutes each week from her home in California -- but staff training. Now the district will pay Mentor Hay's salary, and the training expenses will come out of federal professional-development grants. Mentor Hay is on contract to remain with DPS through next June but says she'd like to stay on as long as it takes to boost literacy. "We're in the middle of some really exciting work," she says. "I predicted a little bump the first year and more of a bump the second year. Well, we got a nice little bump this year."

 
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