Forest Elementary Making Progress?

This is from the Star Tribune;

Crystal school launches small-group reading

by Norman Draper

At Crystal’s Forest Elementary School, reading has become a small-group exercise.

For the first time this year, teaching specialists are joining forces with regular classroom teachers in the K-5 school to break up each class into small reading groups. The idea is that, by working in groups of about six students each and separating the groups by learning ability, kids make better progress reading.

Test scores and the reports from teachers appear to bear that out. Results from school tests show improved scores and more students making above-average reading progress from last year to this year.  Especially significant is the reading progress among black students, who comprise a quarter of the district’s 671 students.  “Our goal is to close the achievement gap [between white and non-white students], and we have seen really good growth,” said Forest Principal Connie Grumdahl.

For instance, school test scores showed that 71 percent of the school’s black fifth-graders made above-average progress in reading this year, compared to 56 percent of the white fifth-graders.  In the past, Grumdahl said, school specialists have pulled some kids — such as those who are still learning English and fit into the special education category — out of their classrooms for special reading instruction. The difference this year is that the specialists are coming into the classroom to spend a half-hour with those kids. The regular teacher also has small groups of students for more individualized reading instruction.

Grumdahl said she wanted to try something different in reading instruction this year to address the reading challenges presented by the changing population of the school.  “We’re experiencing more mobility, more poverty and a different readiness level for children as they enter any grade, especially kindergarten,” she said.  One thing that helped this year, she said, was a new set of reading books written in versions for kids of different reading abilities and cultural backgrounds. Then, figured Grumdahl, it might be better to have the teaching specialists go into the classrooms, rather than having them pull kids out to go to other classes.

Those specialists now work “side-by-side in small groups” with the regular classroom teachers. That, she said, has resulted in more collaboration between the teaching specialists and regular classroom teachers, and making it easier to track individual students’ progress in reading.  “Everybody is on the same page, and we’re all moving in the same way in terms of instruction,” Grumdahl said. “There’s more conversation going on about each child. There’s a sharing that happens [that] I don’t think can always happen.”

Fifth-grade teacher Gretchen Reinholz said in her homeroom of 27 kids she has six different reading groups. Those groups are divided into kids who are English language learners, special education (two different levels), below-their-grade reading level, at-their-grade reading level, and above-their-grade reading level.  At first, the small reading group initiative was a learning experience for the teachers, too.  “Initially, it was like driving a new car and trying to learn the features that make that car exciting,” Reinholz said. One challenge is that not every small group is working with a teacher at the same time. So Reinholz has to make sure the students not being tutored are able to find ways to keep busy.

She said the new reading textbook series helps because it presents “real experiences,  There are more different cultural groups represented in the curriculum than what you might sometimes see.” The result of all this, Reinholz said, is not only the rising test scores, but more engaged students.  “They’re starting to use vocabulary more readily and there’s more participation,” she said. “I’m getting more kids to do read-alouds as part of the whole group. This year, I’ve seen kids taking more chances. It feels a little more safe to share your ideas.”

Grumdahl said she doesn’t know whether other elementary schools in her district and elsewhere are taking a similar approach, though she has talked to other principals about it.  “I’m sure there are schools doing different versions of this or parts of it,” she said.  She said she would like to expand the practice at some point to math instruction at the school.

Funny…we remember small reading groups in elementary schools and we didn’t have any “teaching specialists” or  “textbooks with different cultural groups.”  Then again, if this is closing the achievement gap and producing real results then it is fine by us.

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