Last May, a first grader named Jasmine transferred to Mendota Elementary School, a K-5 school that's part of the Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan School District. She could barely read. Her parents were frustrated at her former teachers for letting their daughter fall so far behind.
But by December, Jasmine made a one-year reading gain in less than five months, mainly because of the Comprehensive Literacy Instructional Program, a seven-year-old district-wide program that has received solid support from administrators, teachers and the local community.
Something had to be done: The program was launched in 1998 when the district's school board adopted a goal that all students would be able to read by the third grade, says Art Rainwater, superintendent. The district was trying to eradicate a long history of achievement gaps between white and minority students.
Focus on the classroom: "Our minority students did not achieve at the same level as our white students did," says Rainwater, adding that 21 percent of African-American students in the third grade couldn't read and 55 percent were dropping out of school. "We recognized this 20 years before and spent an awful lot of money on family support and other things. Nothing was working. So we decided to take our resources and focus on students learning in the classroom."
Great minds think alike: Around the same time, the local newspaper and TV station began scrutinizing the school district's performance and reached the same conclusion: reading must be a primary focus.
Long-term goals: With that goal in mind, the district defined nine major components of reading, including phonemic awareness, comprehension, and high frequency words, then developed a diagnostic assessment and instructional strategies so that teachers could monitor each child's reading progress on a daily basis and provide appropriate assistance. While teachers received program training, some also worked directly with literacy coaches, adds Rainwater.
It takes a village: Nearly 800 community volunteers were trained by the district's literacy staff as after-school tutors to extend the reading time of students. With a grant from the Volunteers in Service to America program, the district also hired an employee to coordinate reading time. By then, the state had passed a law that provided school districts with additional funds so that the size of K-3 classes could be reduced from approximately 23 students to 15 students.
No deviations: "The whole idea of solving this problem got to be a community issue," Rainwater says. "That was a big plus. It enabled us to stay the course without any deviations."
No turning back: Today, 78 percent of the district's African-American students now graduate high school. Likewise, the achievement gap has vanished between any students who are not living in poverty. However, a reading gap still exists between low-income black, Latino and white students.
Huge payoff: Meanwhile, Mendota Elementary continues to produce impressive test scores in the area of reading proficiency. Scores for third-graders jumped from the 50 percent range in the mid-1990s to 87 percent this year.
Carol Patton is a contributing editor.