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.

He decided that a uniform, district-wide literacy program was crucial. But to create such a program, he needed the help of someone more experienced in K-12 education than himself, so he abolished the chief operating officer position and substituted it with the role of chief academic officer. He interviewed a dozen candidates but couldn't find the right match. "I had so many people coming in here selling me the quick fix," he recalls.

He wanted someone who understood that a reading-reform effort would be a slow, measured process involving years of hard work. "We didn't get into this overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight," he says. While lamenting the seeming futility of his academic-officer search to fellow superintendents around the country, Wartgow heard about the Institute for Learning, an educational think tank at the University of Pittsburgh that frequently contracts out its fellows to help ailing school districts. The Institute's philosophy is that all kids, regardless of their socioeconomic background, can achieve if given the chance, and the director, Lauren Resnick, has the reputation of being one of the premier thinkers on education in the country.

"It occurred to me that we could do something really different in DPS," Wartgow says. "I could literally outsource the chief academic officer position." He found an ideal candidate in Institute fellow Sally Mentor Hay, a former teacher, principal and reading specialist who has served as deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education and has helped 22 state education departments, including Colorado's, develop academic standards and performance assessments.

"Everyone I talked to said there's no one in the country who knows literacy initiatives better than Sally Mentor Hay," Wartgow says. "She was realistic about what we could achieve; she wasn't selling me a bill of goods."

Mentor Hay was inspired to go into education by her mother, even though she didn't realize it at first. "My mom was a pioneer in school administration. She was one of the first women in Southern California to move into upper levels of school administration at a time when 95 percent of school administrators were men," she says. Since her mother was assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at a suburban school district in East Los Angeles, Mentor Hay "learned the business at the dinner table."

But she never intended to follow in her mother's footsteps. The UCLA economics major planned to go into business -- until she took a job as a teaching assistant at the university's demonstration school. "A week into it, I was like, 'Oh, my gosh.' I loved it. I was good at it. I was amazed at how much I already knew about it, because my mom came home and talked about her work," Mentor Hay recalls.

Her first teaching assignment was at school in an East Los Angeles barrio where few students spoke English and most lived in poverty. The kids who could read in English were several levels below where they should have been. It was a wake-up call for Mentor Hay -- and it proved to be a defining moment in her career. She had prepared great lessons in social studies and science, but "so much of it the kids weren't ready for, because the literacy had to come first. That was back in the '70s, and that hasn't changed. It's still a problem, and until a school system addresses literacy, nothing else is possible."

Eager to do just that, Mentor Hay accepted the DPS job in January 2002. The district initially signed a five-month, $180,000 contract with The Institute for Learning, which includes Mentor Hay's salary and travel expenses (she commutes to Denver each week from her home in Auburn, California), as well as training sessions for administrators and the use of all of the institute's training materials. The contract was paid for out of philanthropic donations, and after it ended, Wartgow extended it for a year. (Mentor Hay's second contract ends this summer, but she has already committed to staying with DPS through June 2004; so far, donations from local charitable organizations are still funding her position.)

"As chief academic officer, I'm responsible for improving the overall academic environment, but it was clear when I got here that 65 percent of our kids in middle and high school couldn't read well enough to access the core curriculum," Mentor Hay says. "If that's the case, why come to school?"

After Mentor Hay took stock of what literacy programs were already in place in Denver schools, she and her staff got to work creating a uniform reading and writing curriculum for the entire district. Their program is firmly grounded in research about how kids best learn to read, according to DPS literacy director Susana Cordova, who was principal of Denver's Remington Elementary School before assuming the literacy post last summer. The National Center on Education and the Economy conducted a study that showed when kids read a million words a year at a level they understand, they're likely to encounter 15,000 to 30,000 unfamiliar words. If they can learn one out of twenty of those words from the context in which they appear, they can boost their vocabulary by 750 to 1,500 words. So this past fall, the district challenged kids to read a million words a year, which translates to roughly 25 books. To meet that challenge, kids are expected to read not only in class, but also at home, where they're encouraged to read to younger siblings as well.

The district also replaced the practice of having all children read the same material, since research reveals the common-sense principle that kids won't learn to read if they're given books that are either too difficult or too easy for them. And the district instituted scheduled three-hour reading-and-writing blocks -- essentially consolidating the time many schools were already spending on these skills. "Some people might say, 'Why spend so much time doing independent reading in class when they can do it outside of school?'" Cordova says. "If kids don't have the basic skills to be able to do that, they won't read outside of school."

Because teachers were employing such different methods of reading instruction, they needed to learn how to teach in this new way, so last spring, DPS hired 184 elementary literacy coaches, 26 secondary-level coaches and forty educators with specialties in literacy, bilingual instruction and math. Last summer, the new specialists and coaches attended intensive training sessions conducted by educational consultants affiliated with the Institute for Learning. By the time the school year began in August, DPS was ready to debut its Elementary Literacy Program in every low- and unsatisfactory-rated school in Denver.

The program follows a very specific daily routine. District literacy specialists are supposed to spend four hours every Monday training the coaches how to work with teachers; the coaches, in turn, will teach teachers how to implement the program, which begins each day with a ninety-minute readers' workshop. The workshop itself kicks off with a 25-minute "opening meeting" in which students either read aloud or are read to. During that introductory period, the teacher also gives a five- to ten-minute "mini-lesson" that sets the focus for the day's reading. For example, the teacher might instruct the kids to figure out unknown words by looking for clues in the surrounding text during their sixty-minute work period, when they're free to read on their own or in small groups.

While the students are busy at work, the teacher picks groups of kids reading at the same level and helps them think and talk through the text. Also during the work period, the teacher holds short conferences with small groups or individual students in order to monitor progress. At the end of the hour, the students gather once more as a group to share what they learned.

At the end of the reading workshop, the teacher transitions them into the writing portion of their day. Another "mini-lesson" introduces the focus of the day's writing. For the next 43 to 48 minutes, students write independently while the teacher pulls them aside individually or in small groups for conferences. During those brief meetings, the teacher assesses the kids' writing and provides feedback on their projects. Like the reading workshop, the writing period ends with a short group meeting in which students share their work.

The last portion of the literacy section consists of a thirty-minute "skills block" in which the whole group receives lessons in spelling, phonics, grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and anything else that might help students become proficient readers and writers.

Those three lesson-packed hours aren't the only requirements of the new literacy program. Teachers are also expected to turn their classrooms into warm learning environments revolving around reading and writing by using a set of "routines, rituals and artifacts." And they are supposed to get kids accustomed to the structure of the literacy block so that they know what to expect each day when they come to school -- the theory being that kids who are "trained" to read on a daily basis will develop a lifelong habit of it. "There are no 'days off' when they can just sit back and watch," reads a district description of the program. "While they may have choices about what to read or what to write, they know they will be reading and writing."

Charts and posters containing tips from the oral "mini-lessons" are supposed to hang on the walls so that kids can refer back to them. The students' own written work must also be posted around the classroom. And, of course, no reading environment would be complete without books -- lots of them. With a $730,000 grant from The Morgridge Family Fund and money from various other federal, state and district sources, DPS stocked every elementary classroom with its own library.

At a book fair last summer, principals selected books from different publishing houses; each collection was designed by grade level but contained books of varying reading abilities and genres, including historical fiction and non-fiction. Fourth-graders, for example, can now choose from titles as diverse as the simple Bat: Creature of the Night to the much more advanced Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Teachers must ensure their students select ones that are appropriate for their reading levels. Each student has a plastic bag containing books that they're expected to take home nightly.

"Books need to be readily available. The notion that you visit the school library once a week doesn't do it," Mentor Hay explains. "For kids who didn't grow up with reading being a big part of their lives, we wanted to make reading really easy."

The district plans to phase in the elementary program over three years. So far, DPS has introduced two out of the ten total program components -- the independent reading part and the writing workshop. Next year, more focus will be placed on helping non-English-speaking children transition from reading and writing in their native language to reading and writing in English.

"We will also have a strong first-grade initiative in which we create an expectation and value for first-grade teaching," Mentor Hay says. "The research clearly shows that if you can do a really good job teaching first-graders to read, they take off and go; if not, it becomes less and less likely that they'll be good readers."

Only the lowest-performing schools were required to hold the three-hour blocks, but average-, high- and excellent-rated schools have opted to do the same. The Elementary Literacy Program is now in place, in some form, in every Denver public school.

And another version of the program is being offered in middle and high schools, which also received books. Each day, secondary-school students who read below grade level take two-hour reading and writing "studio" courses in which they read on their own and are taught high levels of writing, including how to organize a narrative rather than an expository piece and how to show rather than tell in feature articles. "They're engaged in extensive reading and writing rather than listening to the teacher talk about a book," Mentor Hay says. "Every student has a writer's notebook in which he or she makes entries every day; they do writing investigations with social-justice themes, since that's the lens through which they think about things at that age."

To pay for the new program, the district reprioritized its budget, redefined jobs and shifted money like never before. Numerous support staff positions were abolished, and contractors who had taught different reading programs at different schools were let go. All of that money was redirected to the literacy effort, and many people in those old jobs reapplied to be reading coaches.

An exact cost for the new effort is difficult to quantify, but, Wartgow says, "It's millions of dollars, for sure." However, the only new dollars being spent on the program, he says, are those from the foundation grants that pay Mentor Hay's salary and travel expenses. (If those grants someday dry up, the district will be able to compensate her with the money that previously went to the chief operating officer.)

Although many school districts in Colorado have literacy programs and literacy coaches, none have committed to such a drastic overhaul. And no other district has as diverse and challenging a population as Denver's, where more than half of the 72,437 students receive free or reduced-price lunches and almost a quarter speak little or no English. But no one will know for sure whether Denver's program is making a difference until next fall, when scores from this month's CSAP tests come out.

After the brief introductory meeting at Greenwood Elementary, the six-person group is ready to visit classes. Mentor Hay leads the way, her nervous entourage en suite.

The hallways are silent -- no kids out of class, no disturbances coming from any of the rooms. Mentor Hay notices that the school's pop machine is on, in violation of DPS policy (elementary-school vending machines are not to be operated during school hours). The two literacy coaches, who are following a few steps behind, wince as Reynolds gets scolded about this.

When the group enters the first class on the tour, first-grade boys and girls, all dressed in the school's required navy-blue pants and green, yellow or blue shirts, are writing down what they liked about the recent Martin Luther King Jr. assembly. Mentor Hay doesn't need much time to measure up a classroom; she quickly surveys its library and peers over kids' shoulders before exiting.

The group is at her heels as she heads to the next room. Kids are seated on the floor around their teacher, who's explaining what descriptive words are. In neat teacher's cursive, she writes on a big sheet of white paper: "Crisol has a barrette." And "Crisol has a purple and green-striped barrette." The little boys and girls remain attentive as Mentor Hay flips through the reading packets and writing folders on their desks.

The second-grade Spanish-speaking classroom she visits next is sparse. The two previous rooms were neat and tidy, with little on the walls other than commercially produced decorations such as laminated cutouts of letters and animals. But this one is particularly barren. Monica Dilts, the literacy specialist, notices the concerned look on Mentor Hay's face and explains that the teacher is new. "What do you do to support new teachers? If you have a new teacher who doesn't have much stuff, it makes the classroom environment not as rich," Mentor Hay tells the group that's now huddled around her. "Student work should be on the walls. Let's get this environment warm and welcoming for the students."

In the second-grade classroom that's next on the list, Mentor Hay notices a little girl with only one book in her possession. "How long have you had this book in your book bag?" she asks gently.

"Since December," the girl answers.

Mentor Hay asks her to read from it. The girl starts out slowly but clearly, then gets stuck on the word "always." After she stumbles over a few more words, Mentor Hay stops her and asks if she's taken the book home at night. No, she says, she hasn't.

"Do you ever take books home at night?" Mentor Hay asks.


"Does the teacher let you take books home?" she continues.

At first, the little girl says nothing. Then, bashfully, she shakes her head.

"No?" Mentor Hay asks. "Well, we want to make sure you take books home."

In another class full of children who speak Spanish, French or Vietnamese, Mentor Hay picks up a writing journal from the desk of a pretty, dark-haired girl. Her book report on a story about a Chinese girl who moved to America is riddled with misspellings. She uses the word "hear" when she means to write "hair" and spells the name of this country "Americka."

"How many books do you read each week?" Mentor Hay asks her.

The little girl shrugs her shoulders.

"You don't know?" Mentor Hay inquires.

"No," she says.

"Okay, thank you."

And with that, Mentor Hay lets out a sigh and heads to a classroom where the teacher is instructing kids in Spanish. Laminated decorations are mounted neatly on the walls and cabinets. A red apple bears the word "rojo," a black bat "negro." Mentor Hay leans in close to Dilts and whispers, "There's no student work anywhere."

On her way out, she picks up a simple penmanship worksheet from a student's in-box and asks Patterson-Smith what its purpose is. "What are they learning from this?" she asks. The literacy coach is at a loss. "If it was my kid bringing home this homework, I'd wonder what was going on."

In the third-grade classroom they visit next, all of the children are reading. And they're not just flipping through the pages; their lips are moving silently as their eyes scan the words. In fact, most of the kids are so absorbed with their books that they don't even notice the visitors. For the first time this morning, Mentor Hay smiles. "This is what we want to see: all kids reading," she says.

The group breathes a collective sigh of relief. But the tour isn't over yet. After stopping by a fourth-grade classroom where the heat is turned up too high and the kids appear groggy, Mentor Hay enters a special-education classroom. She bends down to inspect the kids' book bags. "Are you sending these books home?" Mentor Hay asks the teacher, Diane Swann.

"No," Swann says.

"Why?" Mentor Hay asks.

"Uh, I don't know. I don't want to lose what we have."

"Well, it's district policy to send the books home," Mentor Hays tells her firmly but nicely. "We bought the books so the kids can have them, not so the schools can have them."

"Well, sometimes a kid will bring home one chapter book when they ask, but not the whole bag," Swann explains.

"We're trying to build systems where books go home with kids. The whole point of independent reading is for kids to do a lot of it," Mentor Hay says.

Done with the tour, Mentor Hay leads the group back to the library conference room to share her observations. She explains that she's not here to mince words or soothe egos. She's here to do a job.

"Implementation of the literacy program does vary from school to school based on what teachers are ready for," Mentor Hay tells them. "I certainly have no expectation that each classroom is going to be totally transformed in one semester, but I do have to say to you that you're lagging behind the other schools. This is not a competition, but there are benchmarks for what reasonable progress is."

The coaches and principal avoid eye contact with her and each other and stare down at their notepads while furiously scribbling notes. "Here's my overall impression of the classrooms: On the surface, things are under control -- the kids are well behaved and the rooms are neat -- but the classrooms seem impoverished to me. There isn't richness there. There are so many commercial things on the walls -- anyone can go to the school-supply store and slap that stuff on the wall. But to a student, that's not a home environment, and in a really rich literacy classroom, it's all about the student.

"The best thing I saw was that third-grade classroom where all the kids were reading," she continues. "In other classes, kids were just going along with the program, and it wasn't clear what they were learning."

Mentor Hay explains how she was looking for incremental improvement in the kids' writing when she flipped through their journals. Instead, what she found was random. "If kids are reading and responding, there should be some evidence of it," she goes on. "There needs to be a shift from the teacher controlling the environment to putting reading in kids' hands, and I'm not seeing that here. I'm seeing a model of teaching that holds kids back, with the teacher in front of the class calling on one student at a time. That's not how people learn. There should be kids working with partners to find the answer to a question. We learn by doing, talking, thinking."

Mentor Hay asks them whether they've visited any schools that are further along in implementing the program. They haven't. Before she leaves, she suggests that they observe a class at Harrington Elementary School.

Greenwood Elementary is one of several new schools in the burgeoning Montbello neighborhood -- a once predominantly black community that has become increasingly Hispanic over the past few years. At the start of the year, Greenwood had almost 500 students, 61 percent of whom were Hispanic. Thirty percent of the students were black; 70 percent received free or reduced-price lunches; and 35 percent were native Spanish speakers.

Because Greenwood is the neighborhood's overflow school, its population has since swelled to almost 600. When other elementary schools in Montbello reach capacity, the extra kids go to Greenwood. Between October and February, 95 more children enrolled in the school, and four new teachers had to be hired to handle the growth. Since the new teachers started well into the school year, they not only needed time to adjust to their new environment, but they also had to be trained on how to implement the new literacy program. "That's been the biggest challenge," explains Patterson-Smith.

Another challenge for Greenwood has been the shift in teaching philosophy: Like a lot of schools, Greenwood kids read in groups from the same textbooks instead of being able to choose from many different titles for independent reading. In fact, when Greenwood opened in 2001, it purchased the same reading textbooks for all kids. "If we had known this new program was coming, we wouldn't have done that," Patterson-Smith says.

DPS teachers were also accustomed to conducting lessons in their own style rather than having classroom instruction dictated to them from administrators. "Where does teacher discretion come in?" asks Becky Wissink, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. "This is a cookie-cutter approach. Collaborative Decision Making committees have been setting the direction for schools for many years, and now that's been thrown out and we're doing this only. If test scores don't increase, will the blame fall on teachers? And if they do increase, will the rewards fall on the program?"

But this isn't the first time teachers have had to adjust to new methods. Various reading programs have come and gone over the years as educational trends have changed, but teachers say this feels different. Superintendent Wartgow has heard that DPS had instituted new programs in the past and then never followed through with district oversight. "I worried, 'Is this just going to be seen as the program of the day?'" he recalls. "But I believe that there is strong district support for this, and I've tried to let people know that we're sticking with this."

An outside consultant whom the district hired for $24,000 to evaluate the literacy program has just completed a writeup containing her findings on the first semester. Because the consultant has not yet presented her report to the board of education, the district was unable to release her written findings. But Cordova says it shows that the biggest problem is that teachers don't understand the big picture behind the new literacy push.

However, the findings do show that, for the most part, implementation has been smooth, minus some logistical problems such as schools not receiving books and magazines for their class libraries on time. "In some schools, 500 books were ordered but only 300 have come in; we're working with the vendor to determine why," Wissink says.

Despite concerns about the program, Wissink believes teachers are committed to resolving the kinks and boosting student literacy. "I do think this is a positive step. The theory behind it is wonderful, but how it's being implemented differs at each school. That's part of the learning process, and it will take a little longer at some schools than at others."

Patterson-Smith is confident that Greenwood Elementary will get to where it needs to be; she says the staff took Mentor Hay's comments to heart. "I feel that when she comes back, she'll be astonished at how we're changing."

Each morning, Rachel Rosenberg writes her students a letter detailing what to expect during the day's literacy block. Kids at Harrington Elementary meet with her briefly before heading to their "specials" -- art, music and computer classes -- so when they return to her room at ten, they're ready to read and write.

This morning, they're going to listen to P. Diddy's rendition of the Walter Dean Myers poem "Harlem" for the third time -- a tough piece of literature for fourth-graders, but one made easier with careful dissection.

As the ten girls and seven boys gather around her on the floor, Rosenberg admits she didn't know P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and Sean "Puffy" Combs were one and the same; in fact, she thought this P. Diddy character was dead. The kids find that hilarious. "You're thinking of Tupac and Biggie," one boy explains.

Rosenberg chuckles at herself and repeats what she told her kids the day before: As they read the poem, they should draw inferences to help them decipher the meaning. Doing so, she says, requires looking to the text for clues. If they don't understand one line, they might understand another that will help them figure it out. She tells them to jot down questions that occur to them as they listen to the tape. "Why?" she asks. "If you ask questions, it brings more pictures to your mind," one girl offers.

Right, Rosenberg says; she reminds the class that before she knew what collard greens were, she couldn't form a mental picture of that line in the poem (her students had to fill her in).

The girl closest to the tape recorder presses "play." They took to the road in Waycross, Georgia/Skipped over the tracks in East St. Louis.

It's snowing outside, and a lamp in the corner of the reading circle provides the only light. There's no desk in the room, and the chalkboard and walls are covered with student work and large pieces of paper bearing Rosenberg's tips from previous lessons. Two teachers and one literacy coach from Greenwood Elementary School are here to watch how Rosenberg conducts her literacy session. Greenwood's principal was supposed to come but called in sick; however, the principal from Archuleta Elementary, another new Montbello school, has come, and so have three of his teachers and two literacy coaches. Monica Dilts, the literacy specialist who organized this visit at Mentor Hay's urging, is also present.

Rosenberg's students, who are sitting cross-legged on a well-worn rug at the front of the room, follow along as P. Diddy reads. Took the bus from Holly Springs/Hitched a ride from Gee's Bend.

Rosenberg stops the tape to give the kids time to formulate their questions. Took the long way through Memphis/The third deck down from Trinidad.

After pausing the tape again, she asks the kids to think about words or lines that confuse them. "What are you wondering about?"

Their pencils race. A wrench of heart from Goree Island/To a place called Harlem.

After they're done reading the poem, the kids share their questions while Rosenberg writes them down on an easel of large, lined paper. Where were they living before they came to Harlem? What does "fat round woman in a rectangle" mean? What does the song mean to people? What was the purpose of coming to Harlem?

The student population at this school on 37th Avenue and Josephine Street is much like that of Greenwood Elementary: 78 percent of the 526 kids are Hispanic; 20 percent are black; 47 percent are native Spanish speakers; and 97 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunches. Both schools rated low on last year's accountability reports. But Harrington is not a brand-new school, and it employed literacy coaches even before DPS introduced its program.

"Harrington was already working toward developing a program like this for six or seven years, so naturally it's stronger," Mentor Hay explains. "Every school started from a different point, and schools that had been working toward a strong literacy program were able to make a greater jump, but schools that were starting from square one have further to go."

Rosenberg has worked hard to create a set of rituals that moves the class seamlessly along. When it's time for the kids to break into small groups, she flips on the overhead lights, and the students know to find their seats.

While the kids are busy discussing their questions with one another, Rosenberg works with a group of four students who are behind in reading. Instead of giving them answers to their questions, she asks the two boys and two girls more questions. They want to know why the black people in the poem came to Harlem. Rosenberg asks them what they know of black people from a recent Martin Luther King Jr. lesson. "He wanted people to treat people nice," one girl offers.

"Were black people treated nice in the South?" Rosenberg asks.

In unison, the kids say, "No."

"I know -- maybe they went to Harlem because white people didn't want them in the South," the other girl offers.

With a satisfied grin, Rosenberg says, "I think we're getting somewhere."

At 11:05, it's time to regroup. Rosenberg claps her hands several times to a beat. The kids immediately stop what they're doing and repeat the clapping pattern. It's their signal to gather in a circle on the rug. Rosenberg asks them to put their thumbs up if they thought the exercise was helpful, down if they didn't, and sideways if they're unsure. Most of them raise their thumbs. Rosenberg then asks them how drawing inferences and discussing questions with their classmates helped them understand the poem.

"It helped us communicate more," says one girl.

Another girl has a different answer: "It made me stop and go back to the text to look for clues."

At this, Rosenberg lets out a triumphant "Yes!" It's one of those moments teachers live for.

These kids are getting it.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon