Improving students’ reading skills has been a top priority of our national Reading First initiative–and at Mount Pleasant Area School District in Pennsylvania, we have taken this vision to heart and set a specific goal that every child should establish lifelong reading skills. As a result, we focused our 2004 summer-school session on helping K-3 students who were struggling with reading.
Working with our Title I and classroom teachers, we identified about 70 students who needed additional reading assistance and would benefit from a summer program. Our Title I teachers then contacted each student’s parent by phone to explain the summer program’s focus and goals and invite his or her child to the three-week summer school. During those conversations, we explained to parents that their child must attend the entire summer-school session (barring illness or other emergencies), and we encouraged their active participation to increase their child’s chance of success.
We also tried to be considerate of family needs by contacting parents early in the school year so they could plan their vacations and other activities around the schedule. We felt that starting summer school on June 14, right after the conclusion of school, would keep teachers and students focused while still allowing the remaining summer months for them to have fun with their families.
The program ran for two-and-a-half hours daily (except weekends) for three weeks. We tried to create a close, friendly environment in classrooms of roughly 20 students who were already familiar with the teacher. The summer-school professional team consisted of three classroom teachers, three Title I teachers, one principal who served as the program coordinator, and our district technology coordinator. Planning took place during our staff meetings, with a few extra sessions dedicated to curriculum planning. We used Title I funds, which covered salaries and materials, to pay for the program.
One of the keys to our success was our selection of curriculum that provided focused and individualized instruction. We chose the Classworks software from Curriculum Advantage because it met our primary needs, and most of our teachers were already familiar with it. We had implemented Classworks during the 2003-04 school year for our intermediate grades’ after-school programs.
In addition to providing self-directed, self-paced instruction, Classworks was a logical choice because it is correlated with our Pennsylvania Academic Content Standards and is aligned with the five key components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Classworks learning paths are created based on students’ individual competencies, ensuring that each student’s unique reading needs would be addressed. Because it would have been a time-consuming task to create individual learning plans using our textbooks or disparate curricula, Classworks saved our teachers time while still meeting our students’ unique needs.
While Classworks will import our state assessment data from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), not every student would have taken the PSSA–nor would our results be back in time to create a path for our summer-school students. Instead, we relied on our Title I teachers to identify those students who had specific reading deficiencies. Using terminology and standards correlated with Reading First objectives and those of the Pennsylvania Academic Content Standards, we categorized each student’s reading skills and then fed that information to Classworks, which created learning paths for each child.
Because Classworks is correlated with both sets of standards, it was a simple matter to identify the appropriate Classworks activities so the program could prescribe suitable activities and lessons. Throughout summer school, we periodically assessed the students to refine their learning plans.
Not until we were immersed in summer school did we realize how important parental buy-in would be. We found that most of our parents were as committed to summer school as the students. Each parent received a weekly progress report showing how many activities were completed and their children’s scores on quizzes, including growth and areas of improvement. Their positive attitudes helped the students stay motivated, which was also made easier by Classworks’ fun and interactive platform. While we know that parental involvement makes learning more successful, never was this point more evident than when relying on them to focus on the larger goal.
Fifty-two students enrolled and were split among three classrooms, where we mixed ages and paired older and younger students. One classroom teacher and one Title I teacher were assigned per classroom, and each student had his or her own computer. We had no trouble keeping the students on task with Classworks. We did find that students needed occasional individual assistance, but they also were relatively self-directed because Classworks mapped out each student’s learning activities.
Because Classworks is created from more than 180 different software packages and more than 8,600 activities, students encountered a great variety to keep their attention. Students might be on a spaceship game one minute and maybe a quiz activity 15 minutes later.
Our teachers have found that Classworks also provides an unexpected benefit that is perhaps more evident during the school year than during summer school. Students with reading difficulties often have self-esteem issues. Using Classworks, a child never knows what learning level another student is working on. Every student’s screen looks different, because they are all working on an individual plan of lessons. There is no progression of steps or activities common to other prescriptive software, where success is measured by successfully completing one activity before moving on to the next. Students also cannot tell if someone else is repeating an activity, because they cannot gauge their progress against another student’s.
When the three-week summer session ended, we celebrated our students’ efforts with a small ceremony where refreshments were served and students received certificates of recognition.
We waited anxiously for the 2004-05 school year to start, so we could see how well our efforts and those of our students paid off. Our teachers found that each student showed a clear improvement in reading skills and in his or her ability to keep up with peers. Perhaps more rewarding to us, however, was seeing that the summer-school students now have greater confidence in their reading. This has had a positive effect on their self-esteem, which is especially evident during group activities. These students who were struggling and reluctant to join their classmates when working in a group have found new enthusiasm and confidence in their abilities.
For districts considering similar programs, our strongest advice is: Secure each parent’s commitment to the program’s goals and parameters. Our parents had a substantial daily impact on the positive attitude of our students, which ensured that students were ready to learn and happy to be there. Staff training also played an important role, as teachers had to be prepared from the very first minute students arrived in class. We also conducted a survey of parents and students at the conclusion of summer school. Many commented that they would have liked more personal interaction with their teachers. Consequently, we are adding story time to this summer’s program; half of the children will be on computers, while the others work on reading or have stories read to them by their teacher.
Frank Watson is the Superintendent of Mount Pleasant Area School District.
Mount Pleasant Area School District