By: Eileen Castle
December 4, 2014
It was hard to believe. In April 2004, as the principal of Lake Alfred Elementary, I was dining with Michael Winerip, a Pulitzer Prize- winning New York Times journalist.
Dinner was preparation for his school visit the next day. Winerip was gathering information for an article about my school that was published in the Times the following week.
After I related how we improved our school grade from a D to a B, he asked if I knew what I was doing when we earned a D.
I said I thought I knew, but obviously I didn’t know enough to ensure student academic success.
How can schools increase student achievement?
Here is our story, which begins with the D we received because of low FCAT Reading scores in 1999.
Lake Alfred Elementary was a Title I school receiving federal funds to support economically disadvantaged students.
I called the principal of the only Title I school in Polk County that earned an A that year. She told me most economically challenged students must be taught the tested curriculum to succeed on high-stakes tests.
To begin our school- improvement journey, I reviewed FCAT Reading test specifications, identified the six tested reading standards and developed a schedule to integrate these standards into our reading instruction before FCAT Reading in 2000.
Next, we trained teachers to use effective instructional strategies, because teacher effectiveness is directly related to student learning.
Training included modeling how to use the strategy, clarifying why the strategy increases achievement, and providing opportunities to practice the strategy. During training, my assistant principal and I integrated previously introduced strategies to communicate their continued importance. Once teachers began using a strategy, we provided feedback and coaching. Training was the first step in the implementation of each of our five instructional strategies.
Cooperative learning was our first instructional strategy.
Cooperative learning involves students using a structure (content-free way of organizing conversation) to respond either orally by rehearsing answers or by completing written assignments with partners before students answer questions individually. Teachers introduced one structure a month. Allowing time to practice structures increased teacher effectiveness using cooperative learning.
My assistant principal and I walked through classrooms daily to support teacher management of student behavior. When we were a D school, we were not observing teacher instruction consistently. We began observing teachers presenting the tested curriculum and using instructional strategies during the 1999-2000 school year. In 2000, we earned a C.
Next, we began providing extra reading classes for struggling readers. Resource teachers taught students how good readers read: They make connections, ask questions, visualize, determine importance and summarize by thinking aloud to ask and answer questions as they read.
Spring 2002 was our wakeup call. When FCAT scores were released, we knew we were close to another D. My assistant principal and I were literally in tears at this possibility. When school grades were publicized, we were relieved to earn a low C.
Our close call with another D because of below-average reading proficiency and unacceptable learning gains called for improving our reading instruction. We asked teachers for ideas, reviewed reading data and examined FCAT Reading test specifications and reading research.
We increased reading time for first- to third-graders. We added 75 minutes for first- to third-grade afternoon reading to our existing 90 minutes of first- to fifth-grade morning reading.
Teachers encouraged students to read independently during 20 minutes of daily silent reading. Students who met independent reading goals were recognized in class, on the LAE news and at schoolwide accelerated reader events.
Our 2002 FCAT Reading results revealed vocabulary deficits leading to our second instructional strategy: teaching vocabulary in context.
Before students read a selection, teachers taught vocabulary that students had to know to understand their selection. We taught vocabulary using sentences with clues to the meaning of the vocabulary.
We examined test specifications to see how higher-level questions were worded on FCAT Reading. We wrote higher-level stem questions (the beginning of the questions) for the six reading standards.
Our third instructional strategy involved students answering higher-level stem questions for one or more of Florida’s reading standards before, during and after reading their selections.
In 2003, student reading proficiency and learning gains improved dramatically. We earned a B.
Student achievement continued to improve, ensuring student academic success. We consistently taught the tested curriculum using five effective strategies, which included thinking maps and summarizing added after spring 2004.
Our students’ efforts and our teachers’ and staff’s dedication and effectiveness earned Lake Alfred Elementary the first of six consecutive A’s in 2004.