‘At-Risk’ Kids Make Gains


Payson Elementary School teacher Donna Haught helps one of her students check his work after a timed reading exercise.

Payson Elementary School teacher Donna Haught helps one of her students check his work after a timed reading exercise. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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A federally-funded early-intervention program has already helped students make big gains in reading skills.

Initial results from the highly hailed early intervention program launched in Payson schools this year show promising progress.

At Frontier Elementary School, the number of students testing “at risk” on a reading test decreased by 25 percent from August to December.

At Payson Elementary School, the number of students in second- through fifth-grades testing “at risk” for reading comprehension on a different test fell by half to 16 after the first semester.

Julia Randall Elementary School did not have aggregate numbers available. The district is focusing on reading this year.

These first results seem promising, and PES Principal Will Dunman keeps talking about how excited everybody is.

“It’s exciting. We’re very excited about it,” he said enthusiastically.

The program’s purpose is to identify early on those students who aren’t grasping certain concepts, and to intervene — to teach them in different ways until they understand. Frequent assessments allow teachers to track student progress, and motivating prizes like pencils in a plastic treasure box even serve to differentiate between the kids who can’t do and who won’t do.

The idea is for more students to end the year at grade level. Educators say that the earlier a student falls behind, the more difficult it is for him to catch up.

All elementary schools are participating, but PES was chosen to pilot a special database that allows greater analysis. The district plans to expand the database to other schools. Ultimately, teachers will also work the data to look for underachieving children.

Educators generally tend to speak in jargon. But this new program, called Response to Intervention, corrals existing jargon, abbreviates it with acronyms, and then tops it off with some new jargon.

This first year has focused on wild experimentation, with each school outlining its own approach.

For example, first-grade teachers at FES have concocted an elaborate plan that involves rotating small groups. Weekly powwows at JRE allow teachers to discuss students. PES has installed schoolwide word recognition and math drills — 10 minutes each, every day.

Overall, the district has allowed considerable freedom. Director of Special Services Barbara Fitzgerald says it will grow more streamlined with time.

“We want to give the staff a lot of freedom within a framework,” Fitzgerald said. For instance, the district will eventually adopt an outline of how many interventions a classroom teacher must try before a child is referred for special help.

The process began with fall’s universal screening, called DIBELS, which evaluates reading skills. The test is not new — just the method of analyzing the data.

Low-scoring students move up through different tiers of intervention, and their progress is continually tracked through periodic assessments. What happens in each tier varies by school.

Students receive different interventions to improve scores on ORF — oral reading fluency — and NWF — nonsense word fluency — among other things. Then, the results are analyzed in ISTEEP, which stands for System to Enhance Educational Performance.

The database allows teachers at PES to click on any student’s name, see his progress charted over time on a line graph, and compare it to other students in his grade.

Other schools are using more familiar methods to examine data.

“It’s called Excel,” quipped JRE Principal Rob Varner. The middle school also received the database, although they did not get an intervention specialist.

Overall, educators say collecting the data and using it to determine which kids aren’t succeeding could dramatically improve education.

“I’m really excited,” said Fitzgerald. “I think we’ve made some major steps forward.”

Educators have always collected hoards of data. In that, this program presents little novelty. However, teachers are now using the data differently.

“For years we’ve gone with teacher judgments,” said Fitzgerald about deciding whether a child is succeeding. “They get it right for a lot of the kids, but not all of them.”

Are low scores indicative of a classroomwide instructional issue? Or do several kids not understand a particular concept?

At PES, educators found a schoolwide issue with reading.

“A lot of kids were missing simple words as they were reading,” said Dunman. Now, every kid in the school practices sight words like, “the,” “hike” and “talk” for 10 minutes each day.

In late fall, PES intervention specialist Donna Haught began working with small groups of children who lagged behind the others. She uses a program called Read Naturally.

During a first “cold” reading, kids time themselves reading a passage. Then, they listen to it on headphones and read along three times. Finally, they time a “hot” reading.

Haught has been working with a group of kids that needs extra instruction three days each week, and the effort has paid off. After the August assessment, 25 percent of the students tested low enough for concern. After the December test, that number dropped to 7 percent.

Every week, students receive a short assessment to see if they’ve gained any skills. Kids still testing low after the December test will move to another level of intervention — which will be tailored to a child’s learning style.

Meanwhile, JRE has outlined interventions for every tier — from general classroom practices to a special education classification.

At Frontier Elementary School, the first-grade teachers have created a plan for small-group instruction. Most mornings, students split into groups for a half hour, switching after 15 minutes, and working on different language skills sets like so-called “nonsense words” including tat, har or buh.

Theoretically, sounding out these fake words helps kids sound out real words they haven’t seen. After the half hour of small-group instruction, kids return to their homerooms and focus on other reading skills like comprehension for another half hour.

“That’s just what the first-grade teachers decided to do,” said FES Principal Paula Patterson.

At all the schools, intervention specialists work with small groups all day. The schools are teaching students with similar methods — nonsense words, for instance — just with different delivery methods.

All told, the district has invested roughly $25,000 into the program, which Superintendent Casey O’Brien has described as “embark[ing] on a journey in the district.”

Associated costs include salaries for the three school site specialists and one coordinator and the database, which costs $1 per student.

Stimulus money partially paid for the project, and those funds are guaranteed through the end of next year. By then, said Fitzgerald, “We’re hoping to have developed extensive change.”

Should need arise, schools could operate the program on a tighter budget, which would then increase the amount of time teachers must spend on analyzing data.

“The administrators and I are very encouraged by the teachers embracing it and talking about data,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s going to improve education all by itself.”

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