Reading Target Set: 90% By February

by Paul Bass | October 28, 2009 12:00 PM | | Comments (7)

DSCN5764.JPGThe front-liners gathered with top staff in the West Wing. They reviewed the data. They floated scenarios. They weighed options. Then they set a short and a long-term strategy.

“We always want more,” an adviser urged the group.

“I’m a little anal,” the sharp young staffer with the charts and the clipboard remarked at another point. “I’m sorry.”

“We’re in this together,” the commander-in-chief told the advisers gathered around the table before leaving them to tie up details. “You have a lot of support.”

The topic at hand wasn’t a war or an economic stimulus plan or a political campaign.

And this wasn’t the West Wing in Washington, D.C.

This session took place in a sunlit alcove nicknamed the “West Wing” inside New Haven’s Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School.

In New Haven these days, the topic at hand has become public campaign number one: how to close the achievement gap and make the city’s schools the best in the nation.

Can you do that by focusing intensely on test scores? On data? Or do you need less numerically and standardized approaches to teaching?

Government leaders, reformers, parents and teachers around the country are debating that question as they seek to revolutionize public education.

That “either-or” question, unspoken, landed on the circular table around which three teachers, two advisers and Principal Lola Nathan sat the strategy session the other day at Davis.

Davis has been more successful than many other New Haven schools in raising test scores in recent years, offering some lessons for a system about to embark on an ambitious reform drive. Davis also has pushed such non-metric approaches as the “Comer method.” The Independent is checking in on the school throughout this year for a closer look at how Davis achieves some of the results sought elsewhere in town, and how the school hopes to build on them.

When it came to how the West Wing team used test scores to zero in on boosting students’ reading, the answer to the “either-or” question above turned out to be … both. You can focus intensely on testing and non-numeric approaches at the same time.

Even, if you can believe it, for first-graders.

An Early Start

Principal Nathan has her teachers look at how every student is doing on tests throughout the year. Then the teachers draw up individual improvement plans to put into place with the help of parents. Nathan also has the teachers within each grade meet to compare and compile data and classroom experiences to work together on a grade-wide strategy to boost scores.

The West Wing meeting was the first for two of the three first-grade teachers at Davis: Tamara Raiford, who’s new this year, and Kristen Kazakewich, a long-term sub.

They were joined by one of Nathan’s top hands-on lieutenants, Mary Derwin; Christine Elmore, a veteran first-grade teacher; and math tutor Julie Browning, who’s also pitching in on reading. (Elmore and Browning are pictured at the top of the story.) Principal Nathan sat in for the first part of the meeting, too.

Though new, Raiford came the most prepared. She brought a sheet with her students’ scores on the state-mandated Development Reading Assessment test. She also brought computer-generated charts. The charts detailed how each student has been progressing in her class so far this year on each of the reading skills first-graders are supposed to develop, such as reading for meaning and “self-correcting” — noticing if a word they’ve read aloud makes no sense, then going back and trying to get right.

The three teachers compiled their students’ scores so far this year. Altogether, 70 percent of the grade was scored reading at either “proficiency” or “goal.”

What number should we shoot for in the middle of the year? Nathan asked.

Someone suggested 80 percent. Nathan wasn’t satisfied. A few sighs could be heard. Taking deep breaths, the teachers agreed they’d achieve 90 percent by the end of January, then 100 percent by year’s end.

That was the simplest part. How would they get there?


DSCN5771.JPGIn part, they plan to do it in small groups — identifying which students need which kind of help.

Raiford (pictured) had started on that path. She told her colleagues about how she carries her charts and clipboard around with her quite a bit. “I love checklists!” she said. (That’s why she called herself “anal” during the meeting.) In the course of a week she makes sure to see how each of her students has progressed on different reading skills. She marks that progress on her charts. By last week’s meeting, she had grouped them on her charts — which students were having more trouble sounding out words, for instance; which had trouble self-correcting.

At 36, Raiford is older than some other rookie teachers; she has the sunny disposition and energy of a young 20-something just entering the workforce. She started out her career as a paraprofessional in the schools. She then took advantage of a program at Gateway and Southern Connecticut State University to train paraprofessionals as classroom teachers. Last year she student-taught at Davis; principal Nathan, a talent-spotter, asked her to take over a class this year.

Raiford’s checklist idea interested Chris Elmore, the veteran teacher. Elmore might try some version of it and write out how she’ll divide up kids for small-group learning.

Meanwhile, the teachers agreed that newcomers Raiford and Kazakewich would spend time in Elmore’s class to watch how she teaches reading in order to pick up tips.

Browning, the tutor, emphasized that she would fill in for the teachers to help make that happen. “We work together,” she said. “As a team.”

With guidance from Mary Derwin, the teachers discussed how they’ve been teaching reading. They reported on how kids were doing with “decoding” — the different ways they process words they don’t know, from checking first and last consonants, to identifying “chunks” of letters, to identifying picture clues.

“Abolish ‘Sad’ & ‘Happy’”

They ended up speaking at length at the meeting about “retelling.”

That term refers to having kids describe a story they’ve just read together as a class. As they sit together on the classroom carpet, the teacher helps urges them to describe the setting of the story, the central problem, the characters.

Raiford’s class had read a book called Two Tied Shoes earlier that day. She asked the students to describe the characters at a certain point in the story. “They look sad,” one student replied.

“‘What do you mean they look sad?’” Raiford recounted telling the student. “‘Why do you think they are sad?’ We’re trying to abolish ‘sad’ and ‘happy.’”

“Teach them, ‘You have to use language that’s in the story,’” Derwin suggested.

Derwin spoke of avoiding “dummying down” when teaching reading. “We always want more,” she said.

(Click on the play arrow to the above video to watch a snippet of that portion of the meeting.)

In the end, the teachers agreed to short-term and longer-term goals that didn’t have test-score numbers attached to them. Short-term: Start with getting their entire classes breaking down the essential elements of stories, identifying characters and settings and central problems. Step Two: Then they’ll work on the descriptions of characters. The “happy” and “sad” abolition quest.

Along the way, the students will be re-tested before the mid-year point. The teachers will then revisit the numbers.

“You guys are awesome,” Derwin told the teachers. She added: “It’s your data. You own the data.”

Tamara Raiford, meanwhile, promised to draw up a new set of charts for monitoring individual students’ progress. She promised to email the form to the other two teachers. No one doubted that she would.

Previous stories about Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School:

Principal Finds A Place For “Magic”
Comer Is Back
Principal Keeps School On The Move
Pot Melts
So Long, Old Davis
Music History Steps Offstage
Music Video Of The Week

Some previous stories about New Haven’s school reform drive:

Teacher Pact Applauded; Will $$ Follow?
Mayor “Not Scared” By $100M
Useful Applause: Duncan, AFT Praise City
Reformer Moves Inside
After Teacher Vote, Mayo Seeks “Grand Slam”
Will Teacher Contract Bring D.C. Reward?
What About The Parents?
Teachers, City Reach Tentative Pact
Philanthropists Join School Reform Drive
Wanted: Great Teachers
“Class of 2026” Gets Started
Principal Keeps School On The Move
With National Push, Reform Talks Advance
Nice New School! Now Do Your Homework
Mayo Unveils Discipline Plan
Mayor Launches “School Change” Campaign
Reform Drive Snags “New Teacher” Team
Can He Work School Reform Magic?
Some Parental Non-Involvement Is OK, Too
Mayor: Close Failing Schools
Union Chief: Don’t Blame The Teachers
3-Tiered School Reform Comes Into Focus
At NAACP, Mayo Outlines School Reform
Post Created To Bring In School Reform
Board of Ed Assembles Legal Team

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Posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS | October 28, 2009 12:30 PM

GREAT display of the kind of intensity and passion that our school leaders and teachers all need to close the gap!

Principal Nathan and her "lieutenants" are setting the bar high, AND with the use of data, also figuring out precisely how to get there.

Congratulations on your success thus far, and for your commitment to urgent, rapid continuous improvement!

Posted by: Rep. Pat Dillon [TypeKey Profile Page] | October 28, 2009 12:53 PM

Thank you for this story about the team at Davis. It goes beyond sound bites to show the good work that is being done, and must be done for the future of all our children.

Posted by: Josiah Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] | October 28, 2009 2:24 PM

It's good to see recognition for the team of colleagues at Davis Street School for their professional work on behalf of students, and to see this attention to the focus on reading instruction in particular.

Six (6) of those colleagues have been Fellows in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, including Christine Elmore (in 14 different years), Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins (in 10 different years), and Stephanie Sheehan (three out of the past five years) in 2009. Thomas Holmes, Barbara Natale, and Lucia Rafala were Fellows in earlier years.

In 2009, both Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins and Stephanie Sheehan were Fellows in a seminar on "Science and Engineering in the Kitchen" led by Eric Dufresne, who has faculty appointments in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, physics, and cell biology at Yale. Both Fellows developed interdisciplinary curriculum units to foster student learning of math and social studies, as well as science. Literacy instruction is always integral in these elementary-grades teachers' classrooms and in their unit plans.

Christine Elmore participated and wrote a unit in a seminar on "The Modern World in Literature and the Arts," led by Pericles Lewis, professor of English and of comparative literature.

Another of the Institute's 2009 seminars addressed teachers' development of curriculum units and strategies targeting reading and writing instruction. Professor of English Janice Carlisle led that seminar, on "Writing, Knowing, Seeing."

In introducing the volume of curriculum units, Janice Carlisle (who has directed writing instruction in the Yale College English Department and teaches undergraduate courses in "Reading and Writing Argument") said,

“How does writing help us know what we see? By considering the theoretical bases of that question, Fellows in this seminar developed curriculum units that explore its practical implications. . . . Units collected here fall into three distinct, but often overlapping groups. Many specific topics are broached again and again: the role of visualization in reading and writing, the relation between word and image, and the power of visual materials to motivate students to talk and write in analytically productive ways.”

For example, Deirdre Prisco of Edgewood School employs findings of cognitive science while incorporating visual journaling, arguing that allowing students to create images is a way of helping them use words. ESL teacher Ekaterina Barkhatova of Troup School presents “An Interdisciplinary Writing Unit for Bilingual Students” using photographs depicting migration and immigration. Two of the units concern Shakespeare, including that by Leszek Ward of New Haven Academy. He focuses on The Tempest to engage such diverse issues as forgiveness, criminality, and cross-cultural misunderstandings, while Melissa Dailey of Sound School considers Hamlet and Macbeth.

All volumes of curriculum units that hundreds of New Haven Public School teachers have developed as Fellows, in some 190 Institute seminars that 100 different Yale faculty members have led since 1978, are available for community use at:

. . .
Also, regarding literacy instruction specifically, it happens tomorrow (Thursday, 10/29) is a breakfast Literacy Forum at the new Literacy Resource Center, 4 Science Park (near corner of Winchester Ave. and Division Street).

All are invited to attend. RSVP:

The Literacy Resource Center and the Greater New Haven Literacy Coalition represent efforts to support and complement -- through tutoring including ESL/bilingual, technology (e.g., Concepts for Adaptive Learning), libraries, and parent involvement -- the professional work of public school teachers.

Note the New Haven Register article below with more details:

Here is an evolving "book blog," one attempt by volunteers to promote reading among people of all ages in greater New Haven:

Posted by: Hood Rebel | October 28, 2009 6:43 PM

Davis is a terrific model for the entire district and beyond. Nathan is unrelenting about her High expectations for teachers and students and in engaging parents and community in student learning.

But for those in the community willing to have a non-rhetoric conversation about closing the achievement gap, in addition to high expectations, we must also emphasize the need for increased outreach in the hood to get more students enrolled in high quality pre-school, such as Davis'-- prior to these students entering Kindergarten. Attending preschool or not is a significant indicator of students educational needs.

Posted by: RichTherrn [TypeKey Profile Page] | October 28, 2009 8:33 PM

Another great example of the hard work many schools do every day. It is also important to note that Davis 5th graders were among the top in the district in science as well. In fact, the entire team and teachers were part of a regularly scheduled meeting today with district leadership (Dr. Mayo and many others) and other schools to share ideas and plans for the year. These types of meetings, both at the school and district level, revolve around using data, examing results and goals, and working together and happen ALL the time. They may not all get the press, but is the hard work of many great educators that is needed to drive student achievement.
Richard Therrien
NHPS Science Supervisor

Posted by: teachergal | October 29, 2009 5:41 PM

Thanks for making that point. I was going to post something similar but you beat me to the punch. Davis seems to be getting most of the positive press these days but there are other schools who are working hard to achieve the same results.

Ms. Nathan is a dynamic leader and pushes her staff and students hard from what I read and hear. The good news is that she appears to be willing to do the hard work along with her staff. I like that. I would love to hear from some of the teachers that work there.

The Comer Model is alive and well at Davis and should be more prevalent in all our schools. It is a wonderful model to follow that allows parents, teachers, students and administrators to discuss and set school policy. As a trained professional in the Comer Process, I know that it works when it is implemented properly. It is a great way to build community and implement new ideas.

Posted by: Tom Burns | October 30, 2009 12:15 AM

Kudos to Davis, Ms Nathan, her staff, and above all her students----amazing things happen every day in all of our 47 schools (they are made up of very different student populations) and in every school our teachers and administrators have given their all and have shown some amazing results--we are a team and now with our parents support we can not fail in our mission to have every child reach their optimum social and academic potential--Tom

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