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Early literacy program issued glowing report

By Jeffrey Obser, Daily Planet staff
Friday October 19, 2001

The Board of Education heard a glowing third-anniversary report on the district’s home-grown Early Literacy Plan at its regular meeting Wednesday. 

“We have made significant progress,” said Donna Van Noord, who coordinates the program district-wide. 

Chris Lim, the associate superintendent for instruction, created the elementary school reading remediation program three years ago partly to tackle the “achievement gap” before it happens.  

Regular diagnostic testing, intensive tutoring, and innovative teaching by literacy specialists have been put in place to help shrink the number of students who normally underperform in later years – 20 to 30 percent, mostly from economically disadvantaged or minority backgrounds. 

With teachers and administrators from four elementary schools at her side, Van Noord reported that 11 of 12 eligible schools had implemented the core kindergarten-to-third grade reading remediation curriculum last year. The lowest-scoring 20 percent of students, as identified by diagnostic testing, are given intensive tutoring from Reading Recovery teachers. 

All the schools, she added, were now tracking students’ progress up to fifth grade through diagnostic testing and record-keeping. 

Van Noord said 69 percent of the students helped by ELP were reading by grade level at the end of last year – compared to 71 percent of the students districtwide, in all grade levels. Overall, 377 students had been served, she said. 

School board director Joaquin Rivera made one of the few criticisms of the evening when he pointed out that the percentage of third graders reading below grade level on the diagnostic tests, and thus eligible for ELP, had remained consistent in the last three years at about 26 percent. 

Van Noord said those numbers were partly the result of the greatly expanded number of schools and students participating since the first year. “We in no way think we’ve arrived,” she said. “We look at this as a great start.” 

School Board Director Ted Schulz said after seven years on the school board: “Of all the things I’ve seen, this plan or program is one of the best, if not the best, I’ve seen put into place.” 

The other educators took turns explaining the reasons for the program’s effectiveness. Lorna Skantzen-Niel, principal of Berkeley Arts Magnet School, said the individual student binders given to all K-5 teachers last year were helping them keep track of students’ progress in writing accuracy, reading fluency, text comprehension, and other literacy skills. 

“Every teacher has a complete binder of assessments with timeline and benchmarks,” she said. “Where do my students need to be at the end of fourth, fifth grade? All can see.” 

Amy Norris, a second-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary, said the diagnostic testing had enabled her to give individualized instruction to all 27 of her students and “start teaching on day one.” 

“What this has done for me as a classroom teacher is almost indescribable,” she said. 

Tom Prince, coordinator of the ELP and Reading Recovery at Emerson Elementary, said the “safety net” for under-achieving kids was being widened with a “booster group” for brief immersion of second- and third- graders and special attention to the bottom five performers at the end of each kindergarten class. 

Because of the program, Prince said, the Emerson students in the lowest-achieving 20 percent at the beginning of the year are now attaining grade-level literacy by the end of the year at the same rate as the rest of the students. 

One big change in the program last year was moving from fictional narratives to nonfiction material, which Skantzen-Niel said represented an early start on SAT-9 preparedness and gave teachers a “better idea” of student skills. 

“This is not easy stuff, but it’s now the expectation in the BUSD,” she said.  

Even kindergartners are now learning to read a simple text of a few lines before moving up, Prince said. 

In addition to helping students, the presenters said, ELP is helping teachers develop their skills in dealing with literacy by having them meet regularly to compare notes and critique one another. 

Board Vice President Shirley Issel praised the “atmosphere of professionalism at each school” and suggested the assessment binders follow students all the way through high school. But she expressed concern of the estimated cost of $4,000 per student to pay for the literacy tutors’ services.  

“That’s a lot of money,” she said. 

However, one of the presenters also pointed out that the program could spare remedial costs in the long run. Superintendent Michele Lawrence added that the benefits of staff and teacher development will be felt for years to come. 

“It’s really quite an effective model,” she said. 

Lawrence said she welcomed the group’s report after a long week of budget and personnel drama.  

“It made my day because I really wanted to look at something that was working,” she said to appreciative laughter from the board. 

Van Noord thanked the board for its support, and Chris Lim for her guidance. She also took care to single out an audience member for thanks. Susan Lewis, who compiles most of the program’s data as a volunteer, also works full-time for PG&E. 

“I could not do my job without her,” Van Noord said.