In the wake of the Bush administration’s vow to improve literacy at the earliest grade levels, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is turning to technology to help its elementary students learn to read.

LAUSD on July 19 announced that 244 of its 427 elementary schools will receive the Waterford Early Reading Program, an individualized computer reading program school officials say has been proven effective in helping students learn to read. District officials say they hope the $44 million project, encompassing hardware, software, and training, will help bridge the gap in student learning and improve reading in the early grades.

“This is a major commitment to change in this district,” said Superintendent Roy Romer. “It is like putting a turbo-charger on a car engine: We are going to accelerate reading performance in kindergarten and first grade.”

The Waterford Early Reading Program is a classroom-based program aligned to California language-arts development standards. The program combines computerized multimedia reading instruction—featuring animated characters that teach basic phonics and more-advanced reading comprehension—with more-traditional student and teacher materials, such as books and videos.

The program’s price tag includes some fairly sophisticated hardware, explained Karen Merman, instructional technology applications facilitator for the Waterford project. Each participating classroom will be given a three-computer station, consisting of a teacher station and two student stations.

All three units will be Ethernet-ready Pentium III computers with 866-megahertz processors, digital video disc drives, and 60-gigabyte hard drives, Merman said.

“Some of these elementary schools still have Apple IIes, so this is quite an update,” she said. “For these schools, this is an incredible change.”

The Waterford system supports reading in the classroom by working “essentially [as] a one-on-one tutor,” said district spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez.

The program was designed to integrate seamlessly into kindergarten through second-grade classes during the two hours allotted for language arts by the LAUSD literacy plan.

Ramirez said a typical school day with the Waterford program would find the children sitting with their teacher going over a reading lesson at reading time. At the back of each classroom sits a printer and three computers, outfitted with headsets, microphones, and Waterford software.

During reading time, each kindergarten-age child gets 15 minutes per day to work on the computer. That time is increased to 30 minutes per day for first- and second-graders.

Once students have completed their sessions, the Waterford program shows them the name and photo of a classmate, and they just go over, tap that student on the shoulder, and rejoin the lesson. That way, the teacher never has to stop class for individual tutoring sessions.

“It works like this: Kids are in the classroom going through a lesson—say on the ‘s’ sound—and a child leaves the lesson, logs on to Waterford, and does [his or her] individualized program on the same topic. The teacher can then go back and continue to work with the class on the letter ‘s,'” explained Ramirez.

The program tracks individual student progress, so teachers can get immediate feedback on each student’s specific problems.

“This computer-assisted instruction provides teachers with an opportunity to assess students individually and—through an essentially reduced class size—gives students material tailored to their academic growth,” said school board member David Tokofsky.

“The lessons complement what goes on … in class,” agreed Ramirez. “It’s great, because we have a high percentage of English-language learners. [The program] models good academic language, it’s animated and fun, but [students] are learning the whole time.”

To reinforce reading skills at home, each kindergarten student receives a collection of four videotapes and 52 books encompassing rhymes, the alphabet, and other lessons to take home. “With our enrollment, often these books are the only books in the home,” said Ramirez.

“There are a lot of individual shrink-wrapped packages that are very small and limited,” said Benjamin Heuston, director of Waterford’s Provo, Utah, office. “We have a complete curriculum.”

District officials say Waterford already has been proven effective in the city’s schools. In the past year, the Waterford program has been used in more than 400 of LAUSD’s second-grade Intensive Academic Support classrooms (for students who were held back) and in a few schools that are part of a state “Reading Alliance.”

Feedback from classroom teachers and school administrators has been overwhelmingly positive, Ramirez said.

Studies of other school districts using the Waterford program have shown that Waterford users demonstrate average improvement rates significantly higher than students who did not use the program, school officials say.

In California’s Whittier City and Hacienda La Puente school districts, the average growth rate of limited English-proficiency students reportedly was double that of the English-proficient group in letter recognition and phonological awareness.

Waterford can be successful for all students, regardless of their primary language or beginning level of fluency, company officials claim. Last school year, 42 percent of LAUSD’s students were English-language learners.

“Now our classrooms are taking the lead in closing the digital divide,” said school board President Caprice Young. “With Waterford, advanced kids can work ahead, and kids who are behind can catch up quickly.”

Schools that have reading scores below the 45th percentile on the Stanford 9 test and a high percentage of English-language learners enrolled in the first grade will receive the Waterford program this year.

The 2,235 kindergarten and first-grade classrooms being equipped this year will serve more than 81,000 students. District officials expect to have the software installed in all participating schools by September.

Teacher training is included in the program, and each educator using the Waterford program is required to complete a day of company-led professional development, school officials said. Training sessions started at the end of June and will go on until the end of September, said Ramirez. This summer, more than 3,000 elementary school teachers and literacy coaches will receive training.

“We also have instructional technology applications facilitators … [who] can help the teachers with the instructional aspects of the machines,” said Merman, adding that teachers are fully supported on both the hardware and software side.

But company officials say the learning curve for teacher is not prohibitive. “The biggest time expenditure for the teachers is in initially setting the system up, getting the names in, organizing the students into groups if they want to, and figuring out how to schedule the kids,” said Heuston.

The Waterford program includes a parent-literacy support component, in which parents work with their own children after school to reinforce the classroom reading lessons at home.

Funding for the project has come from various grants, adult-education funds, and state education department funding.

Links:

Los Angeles Unified School District
http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us

Waterford Early Reading Program
http://www.waterford.org/institute/werp.html