eSN Special Report: Closing Gaps Early

Form a plan—and stick to it with fidelity

The students who attend El Paso Independent School District in Texas are predominantly Hispanic and come from low-income households.

Click here to download a PDF of this eSN Special Report.
Click here to download a PDF of this eSN Special Report.

Pam Howard, a former principal who is now the assistant superintendent of special education for El Paso ISD, said the district’s students often enter kindergarten without much background knowledge or vocabulary in English, which makes it hard for them to comprehend their lessons.

“The only time [many of] these kids hear English spoken is at school,” Howard said. Yet, “research suggests that if a child isn’t on grade level by second grade, it’s almost impossible to catch up after that.”

To help these students succeed, El Paso elementary schools focus on providing a language-rich environment that includes plenty of oral reading. “As a principal, I required teachers to do three read-alouds a day,” Howard said.

In addition, El Paso schools incorporate lots of music into the curriculum, because this “enhances students’ ability to learn the language,” she said. The rhyming and rhythm of the songs “helps kids develop patterns of speech.”

As principal of El Paso’s Burleson Elementary School, Howard used a software program called Lexia Reading to help her students learn to read English at grade level. She now uses the software with the district’s special-education students as well.

Lexia Reading Core5 provides adaptive, personalized reading instruction for students of all abilities in pre-kindergarten through grade 5. It also supplies norm-referenced performance data and analysis to teachers, without interrupting the flow of instruction to administer a test.

Students are placed at the proper level automatically and work independently—via a web browser, desktop client, or iPad app—to develop their foundational reading skills. Free school-to-home access allows students to continue their work at home, in extended-day programs, or in libraries and other community centers.

Struggling readers typically use the software for 20 minutes a day, five days a week, Howard said—but the software tells teachers exactly how much time each child needs to use it in order to become proficient.

In 2007-08, Burleson Elementary was rated barely “academically acceptable” by the state. The following year, Howard became the principal there—and from 2008 through 2011, Burleson was a “TEA recognized” school, with a 95-percent pass rate on the state reading test.

As a district, Howard said, El Paso ISD’s English language proficiency has risen from less than 60 percent in 2010 to nearly 80 percent in 2012.

“Anything you do with oral language, you have to do with fidelity,” she advised. “You have to have a plan, and you have to do it well.”

Avoiding the ‘Matthew effect’

There are about 3,200 kindergarten students in Marion County, Fla.—and each year, more than 200 of these children would arrive at school without knowing any letters or sounds, Sandy said.

“We had to do something,” she said. “We had to provide for these kids, as quickly as we could, experiences that could help close those gaps.”

Dennis Pierce

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