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Literacy makes the grade

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday October 22, 2002

Struggling readers appear to be making significant progress under a four year-old “early literacy” program in the Berkeley’s elementary schools, according to a report released last week. 

The report, authored by the Berkeley Unified School District, shows that 75 percent of kindergarten through fifth-grade students tested at or above grade level in reading last year, compared to 66 percent in 2000. 

The numbers, though, may be skewed by a dramatic leap in test scores at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels. Officials attribute the jump, in part, to greater consistency in the way teachers administer district exams. 

Still, district teachers and leaders say the $1 million-a-year program has yielded admirable results. 

“I’ve been on the board eight years,” said retiring Board of Education member Ted Schultz, during a review of the report last week. “I think this is the best thing we’ve done in eight years.” 


The school board approved the early literacy program in September 1998. Today, each of Berkeley’s 12 elementary schools has two to three literacy specialists in place, providing one-on-one tutoring for about 55 struggling students at a time districtwide. They also provide small group tutoring for more than 100 students districtwide and teacher training for staff at each school. 

Literacy teachers like Mary Barrett, who works at both Rosa Parks and Thousand Oaks elementary schools, make use of a program called “reading recovery” which focuses on word meaning, syntax and phonics. For kids, that means pointing to words as they read, looking at pictures that accompany text, and identifying common “word chunks” like “ing.” 

The district, which focuses intervention efforts on first-, second- and third-graders, attempts to move students through the program in 20 weeks or less. Pupils “graduate” when they have reached the mid-point of reading proficiency in their classrooms. 

Barrett attributes the program’s success to strong training, continued district funding – even in the midst of a budget crisis – and individualized attention for students. 

“One-to-one makes it possible to focus and have a complete lesson,” she said. 

The only drop in scores came in kindergarten, where the percentage of students at or above grade level for literacy skills dipped from 80 percent in 2000 to 66 percent in 2002. 

Donna Van Noord, who administers the district’s early literacy program, said the dip may be the result of variations in the way Berkeley kindergarten instructors are teaching – with some focusing more than others on academic skills, such as recognizing letters. 

“We’re seeing some variations in our kindergarten classes that we really need to look at,” said Van Noord, adding that the district is moving toward a more universal focus on academic skills in kindergarten. 

The study also revealed that “reading recovery” graduates, as they get older, are less and less likely to continue reading at grade level. Last year, 74 percent of first-grade students who participated in reading recovery and graduated read at grade level. Meanwhile 65 percent of fourth-graders, who took part in the program in the 1998-1999 school year, were at grade level. 

Barrett attributed the drop-off to a number of factors, including larger class sizes in the fourth and fifth grades and more complex vocabulary and texts at those grade levels. 

In an ideal world, Van Noord said, the district would have enough money to hire more literacy teachers and boost interventions at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels. 

But for now, Van Noord said, Berkeley’s literacy program is making strides. 

“It’s a great collaborative effort,” she said, giving credit to classroom teachers, literacy instructors, principals, district administrators and the school board. 


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