Reading, Writing and CSAP Scores

The teachers at Greenwood Elementary School are gathered in the library, waiting and anxious. It's 8:20 a.m., and Principal Shurwood Reynolds has called them together in the hopes of setting them at ease. Today is a big day, a day of judgment for a laborious semester spent changing the way they teach students to read and write.

Sally Mentor Hay, chief academic officer for Denver Public Schools, is supposed to meet Reynolds, the school's two literacy coaches, a literacy specialist and the district's assistant superintendent at 8:30 and then visit classrooms. Reynolds was hoping Mentor Hay would speak to the teachers first, show them she's not the authoritarian that administrators from downtown are feared to be. By 8:45, the teachers have grown increasingly tense. When Mentor Hay still hasn't shown at ten till, they give up and head to their classrooms to prepare for the school day, which begins promptly at nine. Several minutes after the hour, Mentor Hay finally arrives.

Despite her short stature, Mentor Hay is an intimidating presence. She enters the school breathless from hurrying (she got stuck in traffic) and heads straight for the library conference room, where she wastes no time getting down to business.

DPS is entering its second semester of a sweeping new literacy program that requires students in every elementary school that performed poorly on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, exam to spend three hours a day reading and writing. Greenwood Elementary, located in Montbello, is falling behind other schools in implementing the new program, and Mentor Hay is here to find out why.

Reynolds is visibly nervous. He tells Mentor Hay and assistant superintendent Richard Smith that although some teachers initially resisted the new literacy program, they're now embracing it. Monica Dilts, a literacy specialist for northeast Denver schools, says students at Greenwood are starting to get excited about reading and writing. The school's literacy coaches, Marion Patterson-Smith and Shirley Broaden, nod in agreement.

Mentor Hay asks whether their students have the appropriate books in their required book bags, how many children speak a native language other than English and when the school holds its three-hour literacy block. The answer to this last question disappoints her.

Due to teacher planning periods, Patterson-Smith explains, some students read and write in the afternoon. Mentor Hay shakes her head and says, "That's really a shame, because kids are fresher in the morning."

The coaches don't know what to say. Reynolds breaks the silence with a confession: He tells Mentor Hay that her visit has struck fear into his teachers.

"Really?" she says. "I like to think I spread joy wherever I go."

But there will be little joy on this day.

Two years ago, Governor Bill Owens decided that public schools in Colorado needed to be held accountable in a much bigger way than ever before. Just as students receive grades for their work, he reasoned, so should schools. In the fall of 2001, the state issued the first school accountability reports. Based on their scores on the CSAP -- a set of exams that measure how well students are mastering state standards in reading, writing and math -- each school was assigned a rating of unsatisfactory, low, average, high or excellent.

Schools that rate unsatisfactory for three consecutive years risk being converted into charter schools -- an unsettling prospect, as it's unclear who would run them (private companies sometimes operate charter schools) and how much educational control teachers would retain. And now underperforming schools are in danger of losing funding. Two bills currently being debated in the state legislature would allow low-income kids in unsatisfactory- and low-rated schools to use vouchers to transfer to private schools, which aren't subject to CSAP testing.

Based on the first of these accountability reports, 91 of Denver's 134 schools rated either low or unsatisfactory, making DPS the district with the most abysmal scores in the state: Out of 28 unsatisfactory schools in Colorado, 21 were in Denver.

Jerry Wartgow, the former head of the state's community-college system who had just been hired as the district's new superintendent in June 2001, knew that Denver kids were struggling to read, but he hadn't realized just how big of a problem he had inherited until the scores came out.

Rather than dwell on the bad news, Wartgow decided to act -- and fast. He felt that boosting literacy was the key not only to improving reading and writing scores, but to raising math scores, which the district will focus on with a new math initiative debuting next year. In his first few weeks on the job, he learned that teachers weren't getting enough training in reading instruction, since, he explains, it's almost impossible to provide any cohesive training with every school teaching reading differently. Wartgow also realized that inconsistency in reading programs was a hurdle for students in the highly mobile district. "It's not uncommon for kids to change schools six times in one year," he says.