Last August, Superintendent Jim Capolupo stood in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—a grand building in Washington, D.C. a stone’s throw from the White House—where he was invited to tell his story about his school district, Springfield (Pa.) Public Schools.
At the time, President Obama’s senior policy advisors and staff from the U.S. Department of Education were inviting teams of educators from states around the country to both listen to the administration’s ideas about future U.S. education initiatives, and to present their own stories about the education climate in their cities and districts. Pennsylvania’s delegation was compiled by the Pennsylvania School Administrator’s Association (PSAA), and included PTO members, teachers, principals, school board members, college presidents, and Pennsylvania state agencies. Capolupo was one of only three superintendents from the Commonwealth who attended, and was personally invited by PSAA Executive Director James Buckheit. “We invited some of our outstanding leaders to represent the Pennsylvania delegation, and I sent a note to the folks I knew would be articulate and diplomatic, and would well represent the interest of public schools. Jim, as he has always done whenever I’ve called him, is willing to step up and re-arrange his schedule back at home to advocate on behalf of public schools.”
For Capolupo, that meant explaining some of his district’s 2011 accolades, like having his district meet Adequate Yearly Progress for six consecutive years based on the state’s standardized text, the PSSA. It put Springfield in the top-third of academic performance of the districts in its county. He also mentioned the district’s cornerstone initiative—the Springfield Literacy Center (SLC)—and the district’s commitment to having 100 percent of Springfield’s students reading at grade level by fourth grade.
Sharing with the President’s People
He recalls being stopped by police crossing a street on his way to the meeting when the presidential motorcade was driving by. “I realized, ‘My goodness: I’m here, and the most important man in the free world is right there, and I’m going to say some words to his senior staff,’” says Capolupo. “It was humbling, and I hoped every word I uttered would be just the right thing to make a difference.” Although he missed the first day of a new school year, the 7-year superintendent of Springfield is well known by colleagues as an advocate for his district, so it’s no surprise he opted to be absent in lieu of making the trip. “The notion to send Jim to Washington to talk to national leaders in the education world is very logical to me,” says Douglas E. Carney, senior vice president of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a 19-year Springfield school board member.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Capolupo recalls of the meeting, wondering if it was going to be politically charged. But it wasn’t, he says. The group of 30 was broken into small groups where delegates mixed to discuss different issues. The president’s senior policy advisor on education, Roberto Rodriguez, and others discussed President Obama’s initiatives, while the rest of the meeting featured information and opinions from the invited delegates.
“I think it was a very healthy dialogue, a very healthy conversation,” he says.
To his surprise, a break in the meetings led to a fruitful hallway hello with Deborah Delisle, the president’s assistant secretary of the Office of Elementary & Secondary Education. Delisle wanted to learn more about Springfield’s work with literacy and invited Capolupo back to Washington for a one-on-one meeting with her, personally. On Oct. 15, he made an hour-long presentation highlighting more in-depth info about the district’s award-winning building designed specifically for teaching reading skills.
In that meeting, he outlined the genesis for the SLC, a $14.9 million newly constructed 52,000-square-foot building that opened in 2010 and holds K1 students. It’s a story Wendy Yohn, principal of SLC, knows well. “Dr. Capolupo came [to his position] and brought a vision and passion that reading is the key to a successful life.” Yohn knew Capolupo when he was the district’s director of teaching and learning for eight years before becoming superintendent, and says he was promoted largely for his “forward vision in literacy.” Part of his vision was believing that reading could be better taught, and learned, in a building that fostered collaboration—one with more open spaces and fewer doors.
Capolupo says today’s SLC helps teachers teach due to its unique design.
Outside, it includes several features that allow teachers to bring kids out of the building to work on phonemic awareness skills. There’s an “alphabet walk” (an alphabet maze on the ground, like hopscotch), and a “treehouse classroom,” which is literally a tree house big enough to fit an entire class, where teachers instruct and encourage students to use their senses and record observations when looking at the nature around them. Inside the building, the kindergarten- and first-grade classrooms feature flexible space that encourages small-group instruction and literacy intervention, and class size is kept to 15-17. “We’ve been visited by 60 architects and won five awards,” he says. “The space is truly unique.”
To achieve and sustain the goal of every Springfield student reading at grade level by fourth grade Capolupo adds, “we needed every possible advantage beyond programming, and our 1950s buildings weren’t going to help us.”
IEPs for Reading
But it’s not just the space: it’s the programming within it. Springfield’s literacy program is built on a customized plan for each student based on three tiers of services provided to them, including reading workshops, writing workshops, and word study programs. It’s like having an individualized reading education program for all.
Students are assessed to determine their reading performance level using data collected through their daily classroom work; their instruction is customized to their needs; and then their progress is measured again. According to Anthony Barber, Springfield’s director of teaching and learning, each year since SLC’s opening, students’ MAP scores on the first grade reading exam have slowly increased each year: In 2010, they were 182; and in 2012, they increased to 184.
“People have told us,” says Capolupo, “we have something good.”
Jen Chase is a contributing writer to District Administration.
Superintendent, Springfield (Pa.) School District
- Age: 59
- Tenure: 7 years
- Students: 3,800
- Staff and faculty: 498
- Schools: 5
- Per-child expenditure: $11,500
- Students receiving reduced-price lunch: 13 percent
- Dropout rate: Less than 1 percent
- Web address: www.ssdcougars.org