Reading outside the box

Aiming higher: Innovative thinking helps Soldotna Elementary students achieve more

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2006

In the past, federal Title I money received by peninsula schools has been used to fund targeted programs, meaning the money was used for the benefit of students meeting specific criteria.

A change in federal statute now allows those funds to be spread across a whole school, and faculty at Soldotna Elementary School took full advantage of the opportunity to improve students’ reading skills.

“We started working on this the first day teachers came back last year,” said Katrina Cannava, the Title I teacher at Soldotna Elementary.

What the staff came up with was a very ambitious plan: Get 10 percent more students in each grade reaching benchmark standards than last year.

The results have been remarkable. Students in kindergarten and first grade nearly doubled the goal set for them, and second graders made gains well above average student growth.

While the results are impressive, they way in which the school staff went about fostering student development is just as remarkable.

“Each teacher developed expertise in one area of reading. Our staff coach, Michael Hanson, helped us in our professional development so teachers could offer appropriate instruction,” Cannava said.

Primary-grade teachers Jane Allen, Tracy Erwin, Kelly Vasilie, Kathy Thompson and Sherri Baktuit, along with speech therapist Amy Hogue, aide Rebecca Jorgensen, physical education teacher Lisa Juliussen and music teacher Erin Erin Southwick, developed a schedule in which students could be put in groups of six to 10 for what Cannava called “literacy centers.”

Students go to their literacy centers four days a week for 40 minutes to an hour, and each session is divided into two parts, so students work with two different teachers on two different lessons during the course of each session.

“The teachers had to work together, had to plan together, and had to talk about what’s going on,” Hansen said. “(Each student) had to be everyone’s child. We all own these kids. We all need to be part of their success.”

Cannava said putting the literacy centers together was not easy. In fact, teachers come across new things they’d like to implement in their classrooms, but usually it takes a year for it to become more than ideas in a notebook.

For this project, teachers implemented new ideas on a much shorter timetable, and without any biases or preconceived notions on what was possible.

“That’s what’s phenomenal,” Hanson said. “When I came in and watched the primary teachers pull together and take this one as a crisis — the respect they have for each other and they way they could talk about things, it was phenomenal. Nobody said, ‘I don’t think we could do this.’”

“We were open to everything,” Southwick said.

Southwick took on the task of integrating music with reading instruction to ensure the project reached every type of learner.

She started with simple chants or tunes with kindergartners, and eventually introduced musical notation, using quarter- and eighth-notes to denote syllables of words. Southwick said her first-graders have added 10 musical symbols to their vocabulary.

By reading and clapping a rhythm, students begin to develop the same skills they need to be able to read words — things like reading from left to right, and scanning ahead to see what comes next.

“It’s another type of decoding, but it targets students that might not be targeted by words and drills,” Southwick said. “... It covers such a wide variety of decoding, and kids love doing it. For kids that are struggling and frustrated, musical notation offers a chance for success.”

Cannava said a key component to the success at Soldotna Elementary was the frequent assessment that went along with it. Instead of testing once in the fall and once at the end of the school year, students were tested regularly. If teachers saw something working, they could stick with it, or if a particular student wasn’t improving after a couple of weeks, they could try to find something else.

“The right instruction for the right kid at the right time,” Hanson said.

Cannava said the constant assessment gave students encouragement.

“Students are so excited about their success, they want to do the activities they do in their literacy centers for their free time because they want to make that progress,” Cannava said.

As the school’s staff coach, a position paid for by federal professional development funds, Hanson said part of her job, in addition to helping with research, calibrating test techniques and conducting staff development workshops, has been keeping the staff motivated, and having a way to measure student progress was a good tool for that purpose.

“Sometimes, it’s just talking about the gains you’ve made,” Hanson said. “Sometimes, when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to realize what gains you’ve made.”

Cannava said the Parent Teacher Association at Soldotna Elementary has been very supportive and even helped set up a parent literacy library, where parents can check out materials appropriate for every level reader.

Cannava also said more teachers have taken advantage of the foster grandparent program this year, where a senior citizen spends time reading with a student.

“We are going to do it next year, and if staffing is available, we’re going to expand to third- and fourth-grades,” Cannava said.

Teachers will have to spend some time revamping their lesson plans for next year, though, because the students who took part in the program this year are farther along and ready for a bigger challenge — but it’s a challenge the staff at Soldotna Elementary is happy to take on.

“Once a child can read, they’re set up for success in every other subject,” Southwick said. “That’s our goal. That’s our mission.”

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