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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

Readers at work

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sikeston kindergarten student Alex Johnson reads the alphabet for teacher Katie Weems.
SIKESTON -- "Are you ready?" Sarah Glenn asked her kindergarten students. Once all their eyes were on her, she said "one, two, move," and the students scattered to seven locations across the classroom.

Children worked in small groups to match flashcards, identify letters and their sounds and work on computer programs, among other reading activities.

One group of four children sat at a table with Glenn, doing one-on-one exercises, while the classroom grandmother circled the room to help guide students. After about 15 minutes, Glenn assigned the students to new stations, and they began work on a different skill.

It's all part of the Reading First program, which began this fall in the Sikeston R-6 School District. All students grades K-4 are participating in the initiative, said Cindy Griffin, assistant superintendent of elementary and special services. It calls for a minimum of 90 minutes of reading activities each day.

"The whole goal is to make our children proficient readers," said Beth Marshall, reading coordinator. "Which means at or above reading level."

Low reading levels are part of the reason why the district began the program. Last year, officials applied for a $750,000 grant to fund Reading First, which added six positions for reading coaches, as well as handheld computers for the staff and other teaching and learning materials.

"We were eligible last year to apply for the grant, because of the high percentage of students that scored below proficient on the MAP test in Communication Arts," Griffin said.

The grant wasn't awarded. However, administration thought so highly of the program they decided to move forward without funding. "Decisions had to be made for what components were most important," Griffin said.

One of the biggest costs was a new book series approved at the June board meeting for $383,850.15. "But, they were due for an update anyhow," Griffin said.

Handheld computers were also purchased for all of the classroom teachers and reading coaches to give immediate feedback from the biweekly progress reports and benchmark testing done three times a year. The computers are equipped through a program called DIBELS -- which stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, Marshall said.

Although the handheld computers weren't a necessity, officials saw how they would improve efficiency. Without them, teachers would manually grade them, send in scores and wait for results of whether a student was labeled as proficient, some risk, or at-risk.

"Their time is so valuable," Griffin said of the teachers. "And having the (handheld computers) narrows down the time it takes to administer and score the assessment to a matter of minutes."

Using her computer, Marshall demonstrated how a test would be done for a third-grade student. The child would be asked to read a paragraph on the screen for the one-minute oral test, while the person administering the test marked each word he or she missed. Then DIBELS would generate a score and place the student in one of the three categories.

These groupings help individualize education and zero in on what area a child needs help in. "The whole focus is to differentiate instruction based on the children's needs in the classroom," Marshall said. "We're going to teach smarter and harder."

These assessments also place students in tiers. All students are part of the first tier -- 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading daily. The district is taking that so seriously, they ask parents not to pull their children out of school during that time, Griffin said. Second tier students will receive an additional 30 minutes, and third tier will be given an extra hour individually or in small groups.

"The groups will be evolving," Griffin pointed out, saying students will go through two six-week cycles. "Most children will make the necessary improvements and will not stay in that tier."

The third major component, in addition to the three-tiered instructional model and the assessment, is professional development for the teachers, reading coaches and principals.

The first step was training for all involved over the summer at Cape Girardeau, which Griffin also attended.

"It made us all stop and think about the whole process of how a child learns to read from the very beginning," she said. "All of the participants had to do activities that a child who is just learning to read would go through."

The training and professional development is what helped Glenn in setting up the different stations for children to work in during those 90 minutes. Those stations will evolve throughout the year, she said. "We start with the basics, then you work up to the reading."

Several teachers don't have all their stations set up yet -- and administrators says that's OK, since they realize the new program is a big adjustment. However, they ask for at least three stations per classroom by the end of the month.

"You don't want to force this too fast, or you're setting yourself up for failure," Marshall said. She has also set up in-services as well as regular meetings for the teachers, reading coaches and building principals to create a learning network.

East Prairie started the program last year for its kindergarten students the way Sikeston is this year -- without a grant, said Shirley Hall, reading coach and curriculum coordinator for the district.

"We started with two-thirds of the students really below where they should be," Hall said. Although gains were made by the end of the year, a high enough percentage of students still scored low enough on the MAP to qualify the school for the grant again.

A $400,000 grant was approved, and this year, the program has extended to third graders, there is an additional reading coach and more supplies, such as handheld computers equipped with DIBELS.

"The kids really enjoyed the different work stations," Hall said. "And the parents enjoyed getting the reports every few weeks."

Like East Prairie, Sikeston officials plan to apply for the grant again if they qualify, Griffin said. "But our goal is that we would not be eligible."