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District Profile

Early Literacy Intervention

When 25 percent of students come from non-English speaking families, ensuring that students learn to read on time is no easy task. But, as this district shows, it can be done

The vision of all students reading at or above grade level by the end of second grade sounds nice—in theory. In practice, there are all sorts of roadblocks, such as when children come from non-English-speaking, low-income or illiterate families. Realities, perhaps, but not excuses, says John G. Conyers, recently retired superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine, Ill.

A few years ago, data showed that the district’s minorities and non-English speakers were falling behind. Located in an upper middle class Chicago suburb, the school system serves speakers of 72 languages. Twenty-five percent of its students come from non-English speaking families. In 1998-1999, about one-quarter of all second-grade students were not reading at grade level.

Kindergartners are treated to a healthy diet of high-frequency words, literature and writing. -John Conyers, superintendent

Instead of rationalizing students’ literacy struggles, the district launched an aggressive response. In 2000, it set a lofty goal to be reached by 2005: All students entering the district in kindergarten will be reading at or above grade level by the end of second grade.

Early results are promising. What’s more, the program being used can be replicated, according to the American Association of School Administrators, which recognized CCSD 15 with a 2003 Leadership for Learning award.

Cornerstone of Success

The CCSD 15 recipe for success is multi-faceted, yet surprisingly simple. Its cornerstone is a reading program that stresses intervention and acceleration, not remediation. Other ingredients: a revamped belief system among teachers, a new focus on student enthusiasm and a sophisticated data warehousing system.

Second-grade reading level is key to future success, district leaders know. There is a high correlation to high-school dropout, teen pregnancy and involvement with the juvenile corrections system among students below level at second grade. “That’s why we don’t wait and start working with kids in second grade. When you begin in remediation in the intermediate grades, kids can become [Title I] lifers,” says W. Christine Rauscher, assistant superintendent for instruction and special services.

Teachers didn’t exactly embrace the district’s goal. In fact, first-grade teacher Mary Keeshan admits it seemed impossible back then. Skeptics have jumped on board as the district has proven that the impossible is possible.

But that isn’t the only factor in teachers’ new vigor. “You can’t just implement a new system. Everyone has to be behind it,” Conyers says. The district garnered support from teachers by cutting its learner statements, or grade-level benchmarks tied to state standards, by 30 percent.

Then it launched an extensive staff development program focused on research-based literacy practices. You can’t assume educator knowledge of teaching reading is there, Conyers notes.

An informal teacher support network also contributes to the initiative’s success. Some upper-grade teachers voluntarily share paraprofessionals, who have been trained as reading assistants, with K-2 teachers. If students are reading at level by third grade, upper-grade teachers will have better prepared students down the road, Conyers notes. The district formally facilitates team building via monthly breakfast clubs, where teachers gather to discuss literacy theory and practice.

Rounding Out the Team

A school district can invest its heart and soul in reading intervention. Staff development, support networks and national awards could be meaningless, however if the entire team is not playing the same game. Students and their families are integral members of that team.

That’s why CCSD 15 took a long, hard look at student enthusiasm when setting its reading goal. The results of student surveys were a shock. Enthusiasm for learning appeared to decrease as students progressed through the school system. Keeping students who struggle with literacy excited about learning is crucial, Keeshan says.

CCSD 15 chose to empower children through a student-driven “customer satisfaction” program. Teachers solicit meaningful feedback from students and parents and use their insights to guide instruction. “It’s amazing. ... You can see improvement not only in behavior but also in academics,” says Conyers.

Empowerment doesn’t stop at 3 p.m. or end with students. A holistic family literacy program offers adult ESL classes and weekly parent outreach nights to give parents tips for supporting literacy. Simply encouraging parents to read to their children may be the standard approach, but it may not be realistic.

Rauscher explains, “Our main goal is to get parents to talk to their kids because vocabulary is so critical. If parents talk to their children and help them develop concepts in the native language, teachers can teach the words. It’s much easier to teach the correct word than the concept.”

Early Literacy in Action

Literacy success, of course, relies heavily on classroom instruction. And when a goal hinges on second-grade achievement, work should commence early. So CCSD 15 has nudged its reading curriculum into kindergarten.

What does this high-powered kindergarten look like? For starters, jokes Conyers, there’s no napping. Kindergartners are treated to word study, shared reading, independent reading and writing. Despite the focus on literacy, some students need an extra push—intervention.

Paraprofessionals and reading specialists guide students who need reading and writing help. The daily intervention typically lasts 18 weeks and accelerates students at a healthy clip. About 100 to 125 students may be going through it at once.

The story behind the story is an intensive data collection effort that signals when a student needs help. Conyers explains, “You can’t wait until the end of the year to get lagging indicators. You need these monthly or quarterly so you can make changes or mid-course corrections.” Every principal in the district could immediately count the number of ‘bubble kids’ in his building, allowing teachers to intervene before the gap grows.

Teachers keep tabs on students with developmental spelling tests, fluency passages, running records and two to three reading tests a year. CCSD 15 reallocated funds to pay for the program and reassigned some paraprofessionals as reading assistants.

By 2001-2002, 87 percent of students were reading at or above grade level at the end of second grade (up from 76 percent in 1998-1999). Although data isn’t available yet, the district anticipates continuing its upward trend for 2002-2003.

Upper-grade teachers report a higher caliber of students entering their classrooms. And few students need intervention for more than one year. Before the kindergarten intervention program was launched, catch-up for students reading below grade level took all of first and second grade, Keeshan says. Now that period is much shorter. Early intervention has also reduced the number of special education referrals. These gains mean a significant district savings of time and money for long-term remediation and special education.

Being able to report gains helped CCSD 15 beat some stiff competition for the Leadership for Learning award. “The district showed that it had really, truly, good results,” says Sharon Cannon, manager of member services and recognition programs at AASA. “If a district can do that, it is way ahead of the game.”

Lisa Fratt,, is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.

The ABCs of Intervention

CCSD 15 provides a variety of reading interventions (created in-house, unless otherwise noted) to meet student needs.

Kindergarten Intervention Program and First-grade Intervention Program: For children who qualify there is a daily one-on-one instruction from a trained paraprofessional under the supervision of a reading specialist.

Read 180 (Scholastic): For elementary and junior high schools, this program provides computer-based individualized instruction, whole group and small group instruction, and individual reading to reinforce reading skills.

Second-grade Acceleration in Literacy: Small group and individual sessions are taught by trained paraprofessionals and reading specialists. Focus is on word recognition skills, phonics, blending, fluency and comprehension.

Soar to Success (Houghton Mifflin): This is designed to help accelerate reading growth for children in grades 3-6 who are a year or more below grade level in reading comprehension. It teaches reading strategies such as clarifying, predicting, questioning and summarizing.

Native language literacy program: This program is for Spanish-speaking students (currently 1,600) in grades K-2. Speakers of other languages participate in an ELL program.