Reading, Writing and CSAP Scores

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"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?"

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon