USD 457 takes comprehensive approach to reading




USD 457's goal, like any other school district, is for all of its students to be reading at their grade level or above.

In striving for that goal, the district makes a concerted effort to ensure that students are developing a solid foundation, beginning in kindergarten.

Leigh Ann Roderick, director of elementary education for the district, said Common Core Standards are necessitating that educators take a more comprehensive approach to reading, which, as years go by, she thinks will have a dramatic effect on students' reading levels.

"I absolutely think you're going to see some improvements, because you look at the rigor of what we're doing in kindergarten now and there are some people who could not believe that kindergartners can do that. But if you have those expectations, they can perform," Roderick said.

Darren Dennis, assistant superintendent of USD 457, said that last year, a committee was formed to develop a tighter set of criteria for students exiting kindergarten and entering first grade. The criteria go beyond students learning their alphabet. Among other things, kindergarten students must be able to write sentences on a topic, and they must have developed what is called phoneme segmentation, which is the ability to break words down into individual sounds.

"Phoneme segmentation is important because it is essential in developing writing skills, and it's really an indicator of future success in reading," Roderick said.

The district is putting the similar types of exit criteria in place for all grade levels, Roderick said. To track reading proficiency, the district uses aimsweb.

"It's a basic screener that will you give you information that says whether or not a student is on track for success, and we give it right away at the beginning of the year. We give it again in January or December, and we give it at the end of the year, just to track progress," Roderick said. "If a child is in green, which is at benchmark, they're OK. If they're in yellow, it means they have some things they need to work on. If they're in red, it means they have an intensive need."

Interventionists look at the data to determine the individual needs of students who show up in yellow or red. Roderick compared it to going to a doctor.

"When you go to the doctor, they always do your blood pressure, your weight and height and all that kind of stuff, and, if there's a problem there, then they're going to go in and do more tests," Roderick said. "That's kind of what our interventionists do. They can drill down to exactly what the intervention is that's needed for the child. Our goal is to get the students out of that intervention so that the next time they take that screener, it's going to show that they made improvement."

Consistent improvement is the overall goal of aimsweb, Dennis said. The district began using it two years ago.

"We're expecting continual growth, so wherever we started last year, we're expecting to get a little bit better every time," he said.

From the fall semester to the middle of the school year, the percentage of fourth-graders who are reading at a proficient level has improved from 54 to 58 percent.

"And the aimsweb has said that is where we should be — about a 4 to 5 percent growth," Roderick said. "So, that's kind of what they're looking for."

Dennis said it is also a 7 percent improvement over last year. And the same percentage of growth is expected from winter to spring, Roderick added. Within the aimsweb, there are sub-tests that track some of the more foundational skills, such as phonics and fluency.

"We want our kids to be fluent because that tells you they're going to have that automaticity they need to be able to read words," Roderick said.

Another important piece of the reading puzzle, which plays a big role in fourth-grade reading proficiency, is comprehension.

"We've got all those little sub-skills when they're in kindergarten and first grade, and, by the time they get on up into higher grades, it's really about comprehension," Roderick said, adding that comprehension requires good vocabulary and phonics skills.

Because students must meet more stringent criteria to move into subsequent grade levels, the district also has made a concerted effort to ensure that parents are involved.

"We've had kindergarten teachers working with parents all year long, saying, 'This is what your child will have to have by the end of the year,'" Roderick said. "That's been a major focus this year, the parents and teachers working together to help the kids."

Ginny Ortiz, a fourth-grade teacher at Georgia Matthews Elementary School for the past 14 years, said she sees a lot more student involvement, as well, in terms of reading proficiency.

"My kids know where they need to be, and, as soon as they take that test, they say, 'Did I make benchmark. Did I make grade level?' They're constantly working to get better because they know where that bar is," Ortiz said. "We kind of put learning back into their hands. We give them the tools, but they are the ones who have to practice and become better for themselves, and they really do take that seriously and want to be better."

She calls USD 457's focus on and approach to reading proficiency progressive.

"They're always looking at what else we need to be doing. They're not content with the status quo," she said. "They have given the best resources available to us to help our kids become better readers."

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