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Reading to Reform

Problem: Student discipline was poor at Harding Elementary School (Pa.), and the reading program was

Problem: Student discipline was poor at Harding Elementary School (Pa.), and the reading program was uninspiring and ineffective.

Solution: A major cultural and attitude change occurred after the implementation of Voices School Design and Voices Reading Program. Harding is a Reading First school with 70 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. When Principal Cheryl Champion came to the school during the 2000-2001 school year, it was heading for school improvement status and 171 students had committed disciplinary infractions with 259 incidents reported. The school had been using the same reading program for 12 years, but scores were flat and some students would get in trouble on purpose to avoid reading lessons.

Beginnings of Change

Champion says many of the teachers were unhappy, which was reflected by the students, and during her first year 64 percent of the staff left. Then during the 2003-2004 year she used a grant to implement Voices School Design, which caused the faculty and staff to pull together as a team. Teachers received monthly professional development that covered classroom management, analyzing data, writing instruction, and literacy instruction. Champion attended all the sessions. "It's about finding your voice and sharing in a respectful manner," Champion says. Using the multicultural literature included in the program, the school saw writing scores improve, but not reading and math. Then for the 2004-2005 school year they were able to switch from the prescribed Reading First program to a full implementation of Voice Reading Program. Improvements were immediate.

"The material is so rich and engaging," Champion says, partly because the students recognize themselves in the books' characters.

Chris McArtor, national product manager for Zaner-Bloser, the publishing company of Voices Reading Program, explains that all the books used are "authentic literature," and the accompanying leveled readers were written to support the program. Texts are currently available for kindergarten through third grade; the company is developing materials for fourth and fifth grades.

The teacher reads aloud to the students and leads a discussion of the events in the book, as well as covering vocabulary, comprehension, and other standard aspects of reading lessons. Champion explains that discussing what happens to the characters allows students to explore subjects in a nonthreatening way before they begin to relate them to events in their own lives. "It gives them the words to express their feelings," she says.

Parents on board

Every class also has a "peace table" where students can go to work out their problems. The students are taught conflict resolution skills. The teacher takes the warring parties to the peace table to resolve a conflict, and eventually students can go independently. Champion says the tables are a visual reminder that "your problems are important to me." She adds that many of the students "don't have a lot of language skills and didn't realize talking was an option" for resolving conflicts.

VRP has a phonics component for parents to use at home, and there are many assessments so teachers can be "very explicit about places to improve."

"I'm really pleased with how this program has raised my students' reading scores," Champion says. She admits that bullying still takes place, but as "it's not the culture here," students aren't afraid to report it.

Ann McClure is associate editor.