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Reaching new literacy heights

Fresh reading program has produced results

June 19, 2010
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - By all accounts, the new literacy program at Saranac Lake's elementary schools has raised childrens' reading levels significantly.

Going over the June test results in an interview earlier this month, Petrova Elementary School literacy coach Diana LeBlanc listed off class after class that has seen significant jumps since the September 2009 testing. One third-grade class went from nobody reading above the benchmarks to half the students. Another went from 24 percent above to 82 percent above. One second-grade class went from no students above in September to 41 percent above in June - yet another from 6 to 47 percent.

After listing off results from about a dozen classes, LeBlanc said the pattern is "consistent" and "so telling of the good instruction" at the schools.

Article Photos

A student in Bill Wilson’s first-grade class gives a thumbs-up.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)

"It's been great," LeBlanc said. "We've seen a lot of growth."

LeBlanc is one of two coaches in charge of helping teachers implement the program. LeBlanc does it at Petrova Elementary; Corinee Palmeri-Parsons is LeBlanc's counterpart for the Bloomingdale and Lake Colby schools.

The new program, by Houghton-Mifflin, replaced an older MacMillian-McGraw Hill program. It cost $200,000 to start up in one-time expenses and was paid for with federal stimulus money. More than 40 of the district's elementary school teachers went to a training program at Petrova in August, and students came in to model the "literacy centers" - small, structured groups of students working independently on tasks such as guided reading, listening and practice with letters and sounds.

All students from kindergarten through fifth grade have an hour-and-a-half "reading block" every day. However, for kindergarten through third-graders, the first half-hour consists of "whole-class instruction," guided by the teacher. This can include vocabulary and spelling practice, or talking about words. Then they go on to the small-group instruction for the last hour.

The program is more structured for the third graders and younger, but this doesn't mean they are all reading verbatim from a prepared lesson.

The teachers are "all teaching the same thing, but they're allowed to present it in their own way," LeBlanc said.

Students who are reading below their grade level, according to the district's assessments, can get supplemental help during the reading blocks - for example, more direct instruction instead of spending more time at the independent centers. There are also timed blocks during the afternoon, separate from the daily 90-minute blocks for all of the students, where they can get more help.


The program

The district put together a literacy committee several years ago to assess the district's needs, said Petrova Elementary Principal Josh Dann. Members of the committee visited other schools in the area, such as Colton-Pierrepont, AuSable Valley and Chateaugay, to see what they were doing, and hired a reading consultant, Stephanie Affinito, at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year.

"She told us what some of the more effective schools in the area are doing," Dann said.

Staff looked at three different reading series. Everyone who works with elementary school children who works for the district had a vote on which program to use.

It was Affinito's idea to have literacy coaches in charge of coordinating and implementing the program. The coaches have a wide variety of responsibilities. They model lessons for the teachers, observe them and talk to them after about how the instruction went, and work with the professional development committee to provide services to teachers. They compile student assessment data, distribute instructional materials, and are in charge of the "book rooms," or rooms at the school with leveled instructional books teachers can sign out to work with students who are struggling. The coaches also meet with the curriculum coordinators to talk about how to integrate the reading instruction into other lessons such as science, math and social studies.

The key part of the job, LeBlanc said, is supporting the teachers. LeBlanc and Palmeri-Parsons also spend time in each others' schools to make sure the program is being implemented consistently throughout the district.

In the classroom

Bill Wilson's first-grade class is one of the program's most striking success stories, going from just 7 percent of the students reading above level in September to 73 percent in June.

One day of reading instruction there started around 9:30 a.m., with the question, "What could you make out of sand?" The children read the question together as a class from the board and drew pictures of what you could make in their booklets: "Sand ponies," "a sand dragon," "pot pies."

The class then read a short poem about sand and took out their "StoryTime" books. After looking at some pictures and a quick video of sand sculptures, they read a little from a story in the book, "Shape the Seashore." The students went from row to row, each row reading a line or two.

The class then practiced using words off a list in sentences. Then, Wilson would take words, drop a sound and ask the class what the words made now: "'Neat' minus 'n' (saying the "n" sound, not the letter) equals?"

After this section, students were called up to spell words on the board. Wilson would describe or define the word a bit to have the student figure out what they're supposed to spell, rather than just tell them the word, and the students would then use the computer's spellcheck to see if they had the right answers.

After all this, the students broke into six groups: a guided reading group with Wilson; a listening group, where the students huddled under a tent made with a blanket with headphones on and performed different tasks after listening; a writing group; letters and sounds; an independent reading group; and building with words, where they cut words out of paper and build sentences.

After 20 minutes, the groups rotated, the students knowing where they're supposed to go by looking at a chart at the front of the room. Each center has a different task each week, said teaching assistant Denise McCormick, who circled around the room from group to group, seeing if anyone needed help, as Wilson worked with his group.

Each student keeps a folder of his or her work, McCormick said, and at the end of the week each chooses their best work for Wilson to review.


The future

In the future, the district would like to incorporate more writing into the program. It is part of it now, LeBlanc said, but it is tied into the reading. LeBlanc said she would like to see creative writing and "process writing," or editing and revising, added.

The program is constantly being evaluated. LeBlanc said they will continue to gather data and teachers' assessments, and use the data and notes from staff meetings to improve the program. LeBlanc said the staff has a "team approach" to the program.

"You're not just one teacher in a classroom, teaching all the kids," LeBlanc said. "It's an incredibly supportive environment."


Contact Nathan Brown at (518) 891-2600 ext. 26 or



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