Longform

Reading, Writing and CSAP Scores

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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.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon