Cardenas Elementary 3rd-grade teacher Elizabeth Rickey and coach Jennifer Ortiz lead students in a MessageTime Plus activity as part of the Children’s Literacy Initiative, which aims to build early literacy skills through strong teacher training and collaboration.

In January 2012, CPS officials and visiting dignitaries from Target Corp. swarmed into Cardenas Elementary in Little Village – one of eight schools that became part of the Children’s Literacy Initiative through an Investing in Innovation grant awarded in 2010.

With the program set to expand to three more schools with funding from Target, classrooms were on display. One visitor, Stephen Zrike Jr., chief of schools for the Pilsen-Little Village Elementary Network, noted the impact of the initiative. He called the amount of reading and writing being done by Cardenas students “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” The Children’s Literacy Initiative, supported by research showing that teacher coaching and collaboration can improve instruction, aims to expose teachers to best practices in early literacy and build a community of teachers who are working to strengthen their teaching. The goal: to help young children learn to read during their earliest years in school–a key time for building literacy, especially if children come from low-income homes (as do 87 percent of CPS students).  Poor readers from poor families face among the worst educational outcomes, and high-quality literacy instruction is also important to build on the gains children make in preschool and ensure that they don’t “fade out.”

CLI’s promising results in Philadelphia, where participating schools made greater gains than other schools, helped it win a U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation “validation” grant. It

The federal funding will end in 2014-15, but CLI has a plan for sustaining its presence in Philadelphia with a $1 million grant there, and is eyeing Chicago for a similar expansion as soon as fall 2013. The program has applied for another grant from Target Corp. in hopes of making it happen.

CLI hopes to reach five more schools with its “model classroom” program in the next two years. Under its long-term expansion plan, instead of just model classrooms, entire schools will become “model schools” that disseminate literacy best practices among others in the area, serving as “hubs of knowledge.” Teachers and principals from model schools will mentor those from nearby schools – in some cases, even including charter schools and private schools.

A lesser amount of training and coaching would be offered to surrounding schools, with the model school serving as a lab to help teachers learn.

But Jen Weikert, CLI’s director of external relations, says that “a key part of this growth plan is getting the district to buy in.”

Once CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett gets past the current school closings issue and takes a closer look at curriculum and instruction, Weikert says CLI hopes that early learning and early literacy become a priority and the Byrd-Bennett commits to working with the program over the long term.

“We don’t want to be in a position where year to year, we are working with the district,” she says. “We want to be in a position where we are partners working toward shared goals.”

A key goal of CLI’s expansion is to train a larger number of teachers in key skills for teaching reading by getting different organizations that work on early literacy, including teacher training programs, to focus on the same key skills.

“We need more general practitioners who are well versed in early literacy,” says Weikert.

In a pilot program, the organization offered training in teaching phonics and phonemic awareness to 50 student teachers in Philadelphia, plus instruction on how to keep “running records,” a snapshot of a student’s reading ability at a specific point in time.

Growth and challenges

With the help of the Target Corp. grant, eight CPS elementary schools participating in the federally funded project were joined in spring 2012 by three more schools – Manierre, Brenneman, and Armour.  In fall 2012, two more schools, Manuel Perez Elementary and John Walsh Elementary, joined with funding from the Chicago Tribune Charities and others.

The Target-funded schools made progress: 66 percent of 3rd-grade students at the Target-funded schools met state standards on the ISAT reading assessment, compared to 57 percent of students in a comparison group of schools.

But before winter, staff had to navigate a change in CPS leadership–and the challenges of implementing a large-scale program in an unstable environment began to surface.

Some schools suffered from high turnover among teachers and other staff. Manierre and Brennemann landed on the list of schools that CPS could potentially close.

At Manierre Elementary, the principal left and a number of teachers did, as well. At Brennemann, between 55 and 75 students left because the school switched to a year-round, Track E calendar and the model classroom teacher left – forcing the program to start over with another one. [Even so, Brennemann posted an increase in scores.] Another model teacher had to change grades.

 “We can bring teachers that have changed roles up to par with their peers,” Weikert notes. Principals also receive coaching, which can help bring a new principal up to speed.

What about teachers who leave a school? “Wherever those teachers land, the children are benefiting from the best practices they have gained with CLI,” Weikert asserts.

Adding resources, focusing on instruction

In teacher Margaret McIlvain’s room at Manierre, newly outfitted with a rug for literacy instruction and extra books so that children can decide what to read, coach Vanessa Villanueva leads a Message Time Plus lesson, where students work together to dissect a “message” written on the board from the teacher or from a reading.

Villanueva later explains that in McIlvain’s room, the furniture will soon change to feature tables with book bags on the back, rather than desks. “It’s more about having the kids use their whole classroom, so they’re not confined to their desks,” she says. 

Weikert says it’s not just about having furniture that is more appropriate for young students, but about training teachers in how to use it.

“So much of the first dose of coaching has to do with classroom culture. It is the basics of how do you run your classroom – how do you get the most out of your students, and how they get the most out of you?” she says.

The program is also helping McIlvain and other teachers hone in on how to help students learn to sound out words in the context of sentences and books.  “Teachers in low-income schools need the skills to teach phonics – and they need to teach it faster and better than others, because their kids are coming in with such deficits,” Weikert says.

 “I realized there are some words in this book that are difficult for a 3rd-grader,” McIlvain says. She has students clap and chant the spelling of the words “them,” “their” and “would.”

“Today we are going to talk about how to stretch out a word and write it,” the coach says.

“To show your d…”

“Dog,” a student says.

“That’s good, I hear predicting!” she says

As she writes the words, she starts by saying sounds and lets the children prompt which letter she should write.

“B-oh-sss-sss,” she says as students guess the letters. When a girl shouts out a second “s,” the coach asks her why. She points out that it’s at the end of a word and has an “sss” sound.

“That’s a rule you have learned over the years,” the coach explains.

When she is done, the class reads the message together: “To show your dog who’s boss, hold him by the muzzle. Dogs need a serene environment, so pet him so he can feel relaxed.”

“I want you to put your thumb up every time we come to a word we stretched out or spelled together,” Villanueva says.

When the group has finished reading, she asks for student volunteers. “Point to a word that you know, that you could maybe teach kids something about,” she says. Daquera picks “relaxed.”

“What’s the first sound in ‘relaxed’?” she asks. “R”, Daquera says, naming the letter, but the coach prompts her to give the sound–“rrrr.”

Next, she quizzes the girl on whether “relaxed” is something that is happening now or that already happened. And she asks the class to think of other things that they did in the past, pointing out that the ending “-ed” usually means something already took place.

Another student chooses to help teach the class about the word “serene.” Coach Villanueva says that because of the long “e” in the middle of the word, there needs to be a silent “e” on the end.

As each student gets up in front of the group, they are praised with a cheer for how well they are doing.

After more lessons in spelling patterns and sounds, the coach guides the class through the steps on a poster titled “How to Spell a New Word.”

She points out they can stretch it out to hear each sound, write each sound, check if it looks right, compare the sounds in the word to a word they already know, and look around the room at the word walls for help.

Villanueva explains that guessing the spelling will help their teacher understand their writing better, and that it’s fine to try and spell a word themselves instead of asking the teacher how to do it.

At the end of the lesson, Villanueva explains that she is also helping McIlvain learn how to create a classroom with more positive behavior expectations, where students collaborate and support each other.

In a post-conference, she asks McIlvain if she thinks students feel confident with the material. “They do,” McIlvain says, but notes that attention is still a problem. She suggests putting students who are not focused on the lesson in the front.

Next, Villanueva points out that when she spelled the word “enough” as “enuf,” students were upset because they knew it was wrong – allowing them to make the connection that the letters “gh” can make the same “fff” sound as “F.”

The other 3rd -grade teacher in the school, Jemil Haywood, also received coaching through CLI – 30 hours, versus McIlvain’s 75. (Haywood has since moved to teaching 2nd grade).

On another day, McIlvain wraps up an Intentional Read Aloud – story time, but carefully planned so that it expands students’ understanding of literature – by having students compare and contrast the book “The Rough-Faced Girl” with a more traditional version of the Cinderella story.

Finishing up a third year

At the end of this school year, CLI will have given coaching, training and resources to kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers at all eight Investing in Innovation-funded schools, Weikert says.   “Through Investing in Innovation, we will be able to have the research and gold seal of approval behind us. This is just the beginning of what we are going to be able to do in Chicago.”

The Investing in Innovation program began by working with 3rd-grade teachers, then added kindergarten and 1st-grade teachers in the second year, followed by 2nd-grade teachers. Each teacher will receive three years of coaching. After that, hands-on coaching will end and the project will aim to build on teachers’ sense of self-sufficiency through “model classroom meetings” with other teachers in the program.

During one such meeting in fall 2012, seven teachers from the Target-funded group of schools – who are still receiving coaching – gathered at Children’s Literacy Initiative offices downtown.

“With the Chicago Board of Education, money is limited, and principals aren’t always given the amount of money needed to supply each classroom,” says Sylva Spraggins, a 3rd-grade teacher at Armour Elementary. “To have the complexity [of books] the Common Core State Standards is looking for is hard. The complexity of the texts is so much better than a lot of the programs that schools can get for cheap.”

All the teachers have copies of others’ read-aloud collections, so they can share books, Spraggins says.

Laura Carbajal, a kindergarten teacher at Armour, says that with the Intentional Read Aloud, “kids are more engaged in the reading. It’s more focused. It takes more planning.”

A few weeks later, in class, Carbajal and coach Sharon Lyons have the students sing a song about Message Time. “My message today is going to be from the book ‘The Grouchy Ladybug,’ ” Lyons says. “It’s going to be about the bug.”

The vocabulary words are “grouchy” and “aphids.” The sight words are “and,” “of,” “on” and “the.”

“Let me see a grouchy face,” Lyons says.

She introduces the topic by asking students what aphids are. “Who eats the aphids?” she asks next. Then she reviews the sight words students will see in the message.

As Lyons writes the message out, students predict what she is trying to say. “The grouchy ladybug sat on to…” she writes. The students chime in, saying “the.”

“Can I write ‘the’ with ‘t-o?’ ” she asks. The students realize they are mistaken about what she is going to write, and follow along as she finishes: “The grouchy ladybug sat on top of the leaf and it ate aphids.”

 “This is the time in the message that three students come up,” Lyons says. One girl chooses to focus on the word “the.” They “dribble and shoot” the letters in the word to review its spelling.

Then comes a more sophisticated lesson. Lyons draws a box around both instances of “the” in the sentence and asks if they look the same. The girl says no. Lyons points out it’s because the “T” in “the” at the beginning of the sentence is upper-case.

Carbajal says the preschool teacher at the school also uses Message Time Plus, and observes how she does it to learn from her.

“It’s like the ball keeps rolling – what she can do for my kindergartners, and what I can do for the 1st graders?”

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