school snapshots

Sharpe Elementary sets high expectations to increase student literacy by 60 percent

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Students in Memphis help each other with their vocabulary at Sharpe Elementary, one of 85 Tennessee schools recognized by the state Monday for test score growth in the 2014-15 school year.

More than 70 percent of Sharpe Elementary’s students read below their grade level.

It was a troubling statistic for principal Gary Zimmerman and his staff.

In the last 12 years he’s been the principal, his school has met its academic goals, but Zimmerman said it’s not acceptable that barely 30 percent of his students are proficient or advanced readers.

At the beginning of the school year, more than 70 percent of the school’s kindergarteners and second graders were not reading at their grade level, and more than 60 percent of first and third graders were below grade level.  Nearly all of the schools’ fourth and fifth graders were not reading at their grade level.

The push to turnaround the school is evident in the work that goes on in the classrooms before and after school and even on the weekends. It’s hard for anyone visiting the school to miss the vocabulary-covered walls that resemble a never-ending sentence.

Sharpe’s story is only a snapshot of Shelby County Schools’ overall push to address the district’s literacy problem. According to a study of third-grade readers across the district, 61 percent of the students were not reading on grade level. District administrators and board members are concerned about this problem because education research has shown if a student is not reading at grade level by the third grade, the student will not graduate high school on time, according to a national study commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The study says the dropout rates are highest for the low and below-basic readers with 23 percent of the children dropping out of high school or failing to finish on time. The dropout rate for children with basic reading skills is 9 percent and 4 percent for proficient readers.

Memphis is one of the least literate cities in the country, according to a literacy survey conducted by Literacy Mid-South.

Almost a third of adults read at or below a third-grade level and 41 percent of adults have less than high school diploma or GED, according to Literacy Mid-South.

“We’re fighting demographics,” Zimmerman said. “Some of our children leave our schools and they go home and there’s not a lot of help.  We can only do so much in the seven hours that we have them, so there’s a gap all of the time.”

Sharpe Elementary’s goal is to increase student literacy from 28.1 to 45 percent – a 60 percent jump – on this year’s annual state tests.

The school’s goal is aggressive and higher than the state’s target, which is 32.5 percent of students reading on a proficient or advanced level.

Zimmerman, Sharpe’s principal,  said considering the progress students have made so far, higher expectations are achievable.

Students are monitored regularly to gauge their progress.

This month’s testing showed that 70 percent of kindergarteners and fourth grade students reading below grade level in October decreased by 43 percent. The 60 percent of first and third graders reading below grade level decreased by 36 percent and 12 percent, respectively.  Fourth graders made significant progress as well, cutting the percentage of below basic readers from 95 percent to 54 percent.  The percentage of below basic fifth grade readers dropped from 100 to 65 percent.

Zimmerman said the progress is a reflection of the school’s efforts. 

“If you only reach for the minimum, then you get minimum results,” he said.  “Forty-five percent of students reading proficient or advanced isn’t the best when you consider half of the students are still reading  at a basic or below basic level. This is hard work and we’re doing all we can.”

In October, Sharpe Elementary started the Emerging Readers Saturday School program for students that were reading below their grade level. The program is funded with federal Title I money, which can be used for extended school day programs, Zimmerman said.

School officials couldn’t enroll the entire school in the Saturday program, so they specifically targeted students they felt needed the most immediate help.

All the students will stay in the program for the remainder of the school year and  Zimmerman is even looking into the possibility of offering a five- day, five-week  summer reading program for students.

The students spend six-hours every Saturday, even during breaks, at the school practicing reading skills.  Students receive computer instruction using a system called Istation, one-on-one and small group instruction, and they are given time to read independently.

Currently there are 22 students enrolled and there’s a growing waiting list.

The computer system, Istation, provides students with reading lessons that test their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.

Stephanie Gatewood, the school’s family services specialist, is the facilitator of the program along with a classroom teacher and teacher’s assistant.

Gatewood is a former Memphis City School Board member and education researcher at the University of Memphis.  She spends her days monitoring student progress, teaching lessons, conferring with teachers and students and reaching out to parents.

Fifth-grader Chasity Coleman didn’t want to come to Saturday school, but with Gatewood and her mother’s nudge, Coleman started the program in November.

Chasity Coleman
Chasity Coleman

“Sometimes I read too fast and I don’t remember everything,” said Coleman, 11.  “Now, I know I need to read slower and focus.”

Coleman said her teachers are starting to notice an improvement in her classroom work. She’s growing to enjoy reading more and reads at least 20 minutes every night.

“I’m reading The Princess Diaries and Dork Diaries,” she said.

Gatewood said fourth grader Michael Gutierrez, another Saturday School student, is now reading on his grade level after being behind earlier in the school year.

“When I started, I didn’t like to read,” said Gutierrez, 9.  “But now I do.  I like to write, but spelling is hard.”

It’s the opposite for third grader Rolando Pastor, 8, who finds it difficult to write his sentences while spelling has become his fastest growth area.

Every day at Sharpe, students begin the day with a 90-minute reading block. Some students receive small group instruction and other students receive before- and after-school tutoring.

Rolando Pastor
Rolando Pasto
Michael Gutierrez
Michael Gutierrez

The school’s commitment to improving literacy not only prompted the start of Saturday school for Emerging Readers, but also a small library in the cafeteria.

Gatewood’s office, located in the school’s cafeteria, has several computer terminals set up for students to grab a quick lesson during lunch time.  She also has a library for students to check  out books, but not only just to read and return.

Gatewood uses a notecard system requiring students to write all of the words they didn’t know in the book, write its definition on the notecards and turn the cards in when they return the book.

If a student returns a book without any notecards sticking out, Gatewood says she’s quick to correct them.

Last week in Ikeysha Hall’s fourth grade science class, Gatewood reviewed an Istation lesson with the  students.  Students had to define several words from the lesson on marine life.

“I’m doing this work because it’s important,” Gatewood said. “We have a reading deficit, specifically  in vocabulary.  That’s why we have a school-wide push to strengthen vocabulary. Children deserve a quality education.”

early childhood

This growing program is addressing Detroit’s literacy crisis — just don’t say it’s filling a “word gap”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Yuliana Moreno told parents at her LENA Start graduation on Tuesday that her children have become more talkative because of the program.

A small program that started in Detroit last year with an innovative plan to improve infants’ language skills has proved promising and is preparing to expand.

When Concepción Orea entered the program, LENA Start, with her 18-month-old son, the boy was making a few simple sounds. She worried that he was displaying the same delays as her older son, a kindergartner who receives speech therapy.

“Now he grabs a book and pretends to read,” she said, speaking in Spanish at a graduation ceremony for the program on Tuesday. “Watching him pick up more sounds… it’s an emotion I don’t know how to explain.”

Over the course of the free 13-month program, Orea was coached to speak more to her child and read books to him. Her son was outfitted with a recorder that shows his — and her — progress. Each family is asked to place a recording device in a bib near their child’s chest, where it tracks and analyzes the sounds the baby hears at home.

The approach is based on research showing that when parents make a habit of talking to a very young child, that child is more likely to learn to read on grade level, with all the long-term benefits that come with literacy. That’s a big deal in all of the 17 cities where LENA operates, but the stakes are even higher in Detroit, where a tough new “read-or-flunk” state law, taking effect next year, will tighten the screws on a citywide literacy crisis.

“What our data are telling us is that for every one month in LENA Start, there are two months of growth,” said Kenyatta Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Black Family Development, Inc., one of the program’s funders.

Growth, in this case, mostly means an increase in “turn-taking,” a verbal back-and-forth between parents and children that researchers view as an important sign of healthy language development. Parents are trained to verbalize their thoughts to their children, then look for a response.

A rise in turn-taking also correlates with other benefits: Parents talk to their children more frequently, for one, and kids are exposed to less electronic noise from TVs or cell phones over the course of the program. LENA gives books to parents, and parents typically report reading aloud more to their child.

The program started in Detroit last year with 50 parent-child-pairs. Thanks to promising results, LENA Start’s nonprofit supporters — including Black Family Development, the Kellogg Foundation, the LENA Foundation, the Michigan Children’s Health Access Plan, and Brilliant Detroit — plan to enroll another 150 parent-child pairs in Detroit.

(The Kellogg Foundation funds Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here.)

Program leaders say they hope to keep expanding, though the recording technology is pricey.

Using the bib recordings, LENA Start’s computers produce a detailed report for parents. It tells them how much electronic sound the baby is hearing  (differentiating between a computer and a live voice), how much the baby is speaking, and how often the baby “takes turns” in conversation with someone else in the home.

The program draws on  the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the source of the much-cited notion that children from poor families typically hear 30 million fewer words before age three than their non-poor peers. That statistic went viral in academic and nonprofit circles, but it has come under fire in recent years, partly thanks to data collected by LENA programs, which pointed to a gap that is probably closer to 4 million words.

The challenge for program managers in Detroit is working to close the gaps that do exist while rejecting the idea that poor families do less for their children. Framing the problem as a “word gap” can be discouraging to parents and can even cue educators to expect less from children whose families live in poverty.

That may be why Stephens sees the recording data as “an affirmation tool.” Even when parents are stretched thin by poverty, she says they are able to change their speaking habits, especially when they’re given evidence that it is helping their child.

“What’s important is that we’re affirming that they’re already their child’s best teacher,” she said.

That may be one reason that Detroit’s program boasts an unusually high graduation rate — upwards of 90 percent of families compared to the national average of 74 percent.

Graduation ceremonies tend to be loud, Stephens said, because babies become more vocal over the length of the program.

Yuliana Moreno, one of the graduates, entered the program almost by default. She was already at Brilliant Detroit’s Southwest Detroit location at least twice a week before she entered LENA Start, attending infant massage classes for her seven-month-old and English classes for herself.

She said the benefits of the program extended to both of her children, even the one who didn’t attend LENA Start with her. It’s not that she wasn’t talking to them before — it’s just that no one had told her how important her communication could be, and the normal demands of life got in the way.

These days, she reports reading to her children more often, and says she uses her cell phone less while they’re around.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”