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Elmbrook turns page with new literacy curriculum

Early use suggests significant results will be seen in district

May 7, 2013

Laurel Leahy wants to stretch the reading stamina of her kindergartners at Dixon Elementary School. Every week she increases the length of independent reading. She suggests they go for 20 minutes today.

The kids groan.

"What's wrong with 20 minutes?" Leahy replied. Collectively, the class says it's not long enough. So they settle on 27 minutes.

Leahy's current class is reading like she's never seen a class read in her 20 years of teaching at Dixon. She credits the results to the Elmbrook School District's new literacy alignment curriculum.

"Never before in all my years at Elmbrook have I felt the same feeling of real competence of how I'm supposed to teach reading. I've kind of been winging it, and I've gotten pretty good at winging it," Leahy said.

"But this year I have the guidance of the collective wisdom of our reading specialists to help me, with what I've pieced together myself over my years of experience."

Since August, a team of elementary educators throughout the district have been working on the development of a comprehensive K-5 literacy framework.

A new chapter

The framework details a curriculum that focuses on reading and phonics, learning standards and targets at each grade level, classroom materials and professional development for teachers.

"This team has done some of the best work that I've seen in my 20-year career when it comes to literacy," Superintendent Mark Hansen said at the April 23 School Board meeting, when the team unveiled the project to board members.

It impressed School Board member Glen Allgaier so much that he suggested the district look into publishing the plan.

Like districts across the state, Elmbrook looks to align learning outcomes and instruction with the expectations of the more rigorous Common Core state standards in language arts and math.

The differentiated instruction ensures equity for all students, and will bring consistency within and across grade levels and schools, said Dana Monogue, assistant superintendent for educational services.

"We have data that tells us our students are entering learning pursuits with a wide range of skills and abilities. Therefore, instruction must be purposefully and intentionally designed to meet this spectrum of needs," Monogue said.

One set of data, but not necessarily the most revealing, the district uses is the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination scores, which came back last week.

Although the district saw overall scores exceeded statewide averages by significant margins, the WKCE test exposed that certain students struggle with reading proficiency, including minorities, students with disabilities and the economically disadvantaged.

Elmbrook allotted $450,000 to K-12 literacy alignment efforts, with $185,000 set aside specifically for K-5, $75,000 of which is set aside for professional development.

Classroom teachers are the most important factor in student achievement and, therefore, the district must spend time and resources developing their expertise, Monogue said.

Elmbrook reading specialists visited districts throughout the state to research successful literacy programming, and one administrator went to New York in January for specialized training.

Elmbrook will implement the reading alignment curriculum across the district in the fall, and expects to have it fully developed by the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Early results

But some teachers, like Leahy, have rolled it out early.

One component of the literacy alignment is called reading workshop, a loosely structured instruction model that invites a more active learning environment.

The workshop includes partner reading, followed by independent reading - which allows Leahy to bounce around the room and check in with students who might need extra attention. The class then comes together and shares overarching lessons.

In the past, Leahy said, she and other teachers spent a lot of time reading to students, while the kids remained passive learners. The new workshop model allows kids to spend more time actively reading.

The workshop also overhauls a book labeling system, helping get appropriate reading level books in each kid's hands. Leahy used to separate books in three bins: easy, medium and hard.

Now each book is documented with a number and letter, and kids know what number to reach for and put in their "reading carts."

"This is a fabulous package that our district and teachers have been given," Leahy said.

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