Teachers collaborate to boost literacy levels

At 8:30 a.m., all the students and most of the faculty at East Elementary School have one thing in common -- they're reading.

The emphasis on reading is part of the school district's commitment to ensure all youths have the necessary reading skills to succeed in other academic areas and in life.

"If you can't read, you can't do anything" East Elementary School Principal Diana Cook said.

Schools are getting back to their roots when focusing on the nitty gritty of the three R's.

Reading, writing and arithmetic have almost been overshadowed by the needs of serving special populations, providing behavioral interventions and mandated programs, Cook said.

When the first school was established in 1640, it focused on the three R's. Today, 63 items have been added to the list of things schools are required to incorporate into the curriculum.

But to what detriment?

Colorado Student Assessment Program tests given in 1997, showed that 40 percent of Moffat County's fourth-graders were partially proficient or unsatisfactory in their reading skills. The next year, 41 percent of fourth-graders didn't meet the skill standard.

Moffat County School District officials took a hard look at literacy. They hired a districtwide literacy coordinator, set skill level requirements and created "literacy blocks" -- dedicated time to focus on reading and skill development.

Officials realized that though the idea was promising, it needed to be fine-tuned.

One literacy coordinator couldn't meet the needs of four elementary schools.

"She was just run ragged," Cook said. "She'd spend a day at each school."

So, each school hired their own literacy coordinator, who spends half a day working with teachers to implement lessons and to help during literacy blocks. The other half of his or her day is spent on interventions -- identifying those who need extra help and finding ways to meet that need.

One of the most innovated steps -- simple though it may sound -- is putting students with similar skill levels together in a literacy block so that a teacher can focus on those specific needs.

Teaching to skill levels spans age and grades to focus solely on need.

"Since we've started this collaborative process, we've seen how well it works across grade levels," Cook said. "We're combining kids so we can meet their needs when they need them. We're working smarter instead of harder."

It was a difficult program to implement. It required giving teachers dedicated time to "collaborate" to assess each student's skills and put them into a group with similar students.

Because of the focused attention, those groups are always changing. Keeping up requires a lot of time, Cook said.

Teachers meet every Wednesday morning to collaborate.

Literacy blocks are 40 minutes a day for students in second through fourth grades with teachers following up during class time.

First-graders are in a literacy block for more than an hour.

Students scatter throughout the school for their literacy blocks.

A group can usually be found in Cook's office, too.

"It's working out really well," she said. "The kids love to come to the office. It's really helped me keep in touch with what's happening in the classroom. I don't forget as an administrator what a tough job teachers have and how well they do it."

The district set six literacy goals this year, which included teaching to all skill levels, collaborating, using data to better assess achievement, improve the partnership with parents, teach reading as part of other classes and use community mentors.

There are about 16 programs the district has already put in place to improve literacy.

"We teach literacy every day to every child," Craig Intermediate School Principal Don Davidson said.

The CIS literacy team meets for an hour two to three times a week to discuss "essential learnings" and plan how to best meet students' needs.

Each student is evaluated individually, and many students have an Individual Literacy Plan.

At the high school, students who read two or more years below grade level are placed on ILPs where their skills and achievement is closely monitored.

Program changes have meant that last year, 27 percent of fourth-graders ranked partially proficient or unsatisfactory. Although there have been setbacks, there have been small gains across the board in reading skills among Moffat County students.

What that means is now the school district -- which has set math skills improvement and achievement as one of its primary goals this year -- has a template for making that happen.

"We're shifting our goals toward math and tweaking the literacy program to meet math needs," Cook said.

Many schools are implementing "math blocks," and the district has hired a districtwide math coordinator

"We're still keeping an eye on literacy, we're not going to drop that, we're just going to follow that same model for math," Cook said. "Because of that, I don't think it will take us as long to get where we want to be."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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