[Photo by Piet Van Lier]

In spring 1999, the 4th-graders at Union Elementary School in Cleveland did something remarkable. About 56 percent who had been enrolled since Oct. 1 passed the reading portion of the Ohio Proficiency Test. The year before, only 13 percent passed.

The increase of 43 percentage points was the largest at the 4th-grade level among the 82 elementary schools in the Cleveland Municipal School District. Beginning in 2001-2002, 4th-graders throughout Ohio who fail to pass the reading section of the state-mandated test after three tries will be held back.

At Union, teachers attribute the increase in the pass rate to a decision about five years ago to concentrate extra resources in the 1st and 4th grades.

Five years ago, when Union’s 4th-graders performed miserably on the Ohio Proficiency Exam, the school’s federal Title I and classroom teachers began brainstorming ways to improve, recalls Title I teacher Carole Travathan, who has taught at the school for 12 years. But teachers quickly ran into an obstacle, she says: They had no data to identify which students needed help early on or how to help students whose problems surface later.

“We’ve got to take a closer look at those young kids,” Travathan remembers the teachers saying to each other. “It was some of us talking and saying, ‘We don’t have enough information on these young ones.'”

At the time, teachers also were looking into Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program aimed at especially low-performing 1st-graders. Reading Recovery comes with a diagnostic test that evaluates students in such areas as concepts about print (for example, reading left to right), letter and sound identification, vocabulary and punctuation.

The teachers decided not only to ask then-Principal Edwin Stroh to launch Reading Recovery, but also to use the diagnostic test on all 1st-graders, not just the lowest achievers. Typically, schools with Reading Recovery use the test only with students who have been assigned to the program.

Since teachers must administer the test one-on-one, it takes several weeks to get to every 1st-grader.

Students are tested first in the fall. Teachers use the results to assign them: High-achievers go to the primary-grades reading resource teacher; low-performers are tagged for tutoring in Reading Recovery or specialized small-group instruction. In some cases, kindergarten teachers make room and time in their classes for catch-up visits by low-achieving 1st-graders.

In the spring, students are tested again. Those who are struggling or falling behind may be candidates for repeating 1st grade.

The teachers also asked Stroh if one of the school’s two Title I teachers could focus on 1st-graders while the other focused on 4th-graders. Before, both had taught students in all grades.

By 1998, Union teachers had put together a student tracking and intervention program that delivers help to 1st-graders who need it most and alerts staff when students fall behind. Students who don’t progress are tested further to determine whether they need specialized reading instruction. Teachers summarize the results in reports that are shared with parents so that they can participate in devising an assistance plan for the student.

Travathan and the kindergarten and 1st-grade teachers then decide where students should be placed and weigh whether they should be promoted. They invite parents to have the ultimate say on promotion.

Sometimes teachers recommend retention based on their judgment and a student’s maturity rather than grades. When a parent rejects such a recommendation and the child is promoted, the child usually ends up some time later with the school’s Intervention-based Assessment Team, Travathan says.

The Intervention-based Assessment Team is a group of teachers and a psychologist that decides how to help students who struggle academically. The team was created two years ago by state mandate and is funded through a grant.

The team “was a big change in our building,” Travathan says. The school had done interventions for years, but the team put a process in place. It also created a forum in which teachers could get a picture of the home front and enlist the parents.

Because of the earlier data collection on student reading skills, if problems surface in 2nd and 3rd grades, teachers or the team can consult a rich store of data, share it with parents and then decide a course of action.

As in some other Cleveland schools, Union’s 4th-graders use Blast-Off materials, which are proficiency test exercises. The school also is piloting Lighthouse, a reading videogame. Union also uses literacy warm-ups that the district provides.

Union’s two 4th-grade teachers team-teach reading with a Title I teacher, grouping students by ability for targeted reading instruction.

Ability grouping

Some researchers criticize ability grouping, arguing that it deprives low-achieving students of the opportunity to learn from their higher performing peers. But Union teachers contend that it allows them to zero in on skills deficits. Low-achieving students receive individual attention in small groups. Students performing near grade level get intensive tutoring because they have the shortest way to go to pass the test. And higher performing students receive more challenging instruction for which the other students are not prepared.

At Union, 4th grade also is “departmentalized,” meaning teachers have divided some subjects among themselves so they can develop areas of expertise and not duplicate class preparation work.

Region I Supt. Sam Penceal notes that the practice forces the teachers to work together while maximizing the strengths of each.

The school also has budgeted for a primary-grades reading resource teacher who, in addition to other duties, tutors high-achieving students in groups of six.

In late January, after-school tutoring of 4th-graders began at Union, using teacher and parent volunteers. The effort was a response to a memo from central office urging schools to have all staff dedicate one hour per week to tutoring 4th-graders.

Teachers at Union say their success would not have been possible without the room to reorganize and the flexibility to try something new. Several credit Principal Stroh.

“If people bring him an idea, he will listen and he will look,” Travathan says, recalling an annual science fair that Stroh approved. “He’ll support you, and he won’t criticize you.”

Stroh retired on Feb. 25. He had been at Union 11 years, compared with an average of 4.7 years for Cleveland principals as a whole. During that time, he has built a base of trust that frees teachers to take risks in the classroom, teachers say.

Allowing teachers to devise a school’s plan for improved instruction helps them “own” the effort, notes Rick Dalton, president and co-founder of the Vermont-based Foundation for Excellent Schools.

Kaye Spector is an associate editor of Catalyst: For Cleveland Schools, which is a new sister publication of Catalyst: Chicago.

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