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School district finds success with reading skills program

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| November 15, 2009 11:00 PM

Reading skills of Asa Wood Elementary students have noticeably increased since implementing a federally-funded program five years ago aimed at increasing the number of students reading at benchmark standards and reducing the number of struggling readers.

A labor-intensive and high-accountability program, the Montana Reading First grant ended this year but has left behind infrastructure for students to continue benefiting, according to Jael Prezeau, district curriculum director.

“We would never have been able to afford the training and material,” Prezeau said. “We sustained the program because we saw how important it is.”

The program required a reading coach for kindergarten through third grade, increased amount of language arts instruction, screenings to detect and provide intervention for struggling readers and a scientifically proven curriculum that focused on both the phonetic and whole language approach to reading.

“I think it’s made a huge difference,” said reading coach Lenora Reckin. “I think it’s taught us what needs to be included in reading instruction and gets away from just doing something because of instinct or because that’s what’s always been done.”

From its first year of implementation through the last year of funding, the percentage of students reading at a standard level increased at all grade levels, kindergarten through third, and the percentage of at-risk students decreased. The number of kindergarteners at standard reading levels rose from 39 percent during the 2003 school year to 87 percent in 2008, and the number of at-risk readers decreased from 17 percent to 1 percent.

“It really did have an impact on the district and still does in the fact that people are trained and we do have a program that is research-based,” Reckin said.

Before implementation of the program, the school had no screening methods in place to determine if a student needed intervention. Now students are tested three times per year to identify the skill level.

“We’re keeping watch all the time,” Prezeau said, “so we’re not letting any of those students slip back only to find out in March or April that, oops, maybe we should have intervened earlier.”

Former Asa Wood principal Ken Foss, teachers and reading coaches received ample training over the years.

“The content of what should be taught and then the how it should be taught – both of those things were stressed in our training,” Reckin said. “These are the components that you need to be sure are included in your reading instruction and here are the best ways to deliver that.”

Prezeau points out that the entire district benefited from the grant.

“There’s even progress monitoring in the high school,” Prezeau said. “It all came out of us getting training at the lower levels, and thinking, ‘wow, this would work in higher grades.’”

The state kept a close eye in DIBELS scores through the duration of the grant, monitoring how students were progressing and what could be done differently.

“It was a very rigorous, very well thought out process,” Prezeau said. “It served our children very well.”