Story last updated at 4/15/2009 - 11:03 am
Lori Meiners is the last original staff member at Mendenhall River Community School. She began teaching at the spruce-lined campus off Back Loop Road in 1983, when it opened. For much of the past two and a half decades, Meiners has been a first and second grade teacher, educating a generation of valley children in her cheerful classroom.
This year, inspired by intensive literacy training, Meiners asked for a Kindergarten class. Her unusual request reflects a change in reading instruction at Mendenhall River, a change transforming the experiences of both students and their teachers.
"Four of us went to California to learn about a comprehensive reading program," Meiners said. "I thought I was going to learn how to use a program, but it ended up being about recent research on effective reading instruction. We learned about the links between reading and brain development."
According to the research of Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Professor of Education Leadership and Policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, five percent of American students entering Kindergarten already know how to read. About 20 to 35 percent more will learn to read relatively easily. That leaves at least 60 percent of students who have to work very hard to make the brain connections that support automatic reading. These children need systematic, explicit instruction. To succeed, they need their teachers to break reading into specific skills they can practice.
"When I looked at the research, I realized then there were children we were missing," Meiners said. "The training showed me we could help those students and I wanted to try. The early grades are so important. It becomes more difficult to help struggling readers as they get older. If a child isn't meeting reading expectations by third grade, the chances of that child ever catching up drop dramatically."
Today, Meiners teaches reading with a team of kindergarten, first grade and reading teachers. It is an intensive effort. Students study reading three times a day in both large groups and smaller skill-based groups built from all the kindergarten classrooms. Students with like needs work together, with instruction directed at their needs. Those who require more assistance stay beyond the kindergarten release time for work on specific skills, and everyone takes home readers with the words they need to practice.
This is the heart of Launching Literacy, Mendenhall River's comprehensive reading program. Instead of relying on each teacher to create a reading program for his or her classroom, the school now has a framework for reading instruction focused on the five big reading skills - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. In addition to a rigorous set of literacy expectations for each grade, the program provides teaching materials and assessment tools for all teachers. This promotes consistency in reading instruction within and across grade levels. It also helps teachers to pinpoint exactly where a child is having difficulty and to design equally specific interventions.
The results of the program have been remarkable. When Launching Literacy started in the 2005-2006 school year, just 56 percent of the school's Kindergartners were meeting targets for phonemic awareness - the ability to hear and manipulate sounds. Today that number is 90 percent. First graders have made even bigger gains in this critical skill, rising from just 26 percent who could achieve target levels to 98 percent.
This growth did not come easily. Reading instruction has a history of philosophical divides and the type of direct, skill-based instruction the program advocates makes some uncomfortable.
"Teachers often come into the profession with a deep belief that the way they were taught to teach reading in college is the best way," said Mendenhall River reading specialist Kelley Harvey. "The problem I see is getting stuck in one way of doing things instead of keeping up on the latest research and improving. You wouldn't want to go to a doctor to get your appendix out if he or she were still using the same methods they were taught 20 years ago.
"Reading instruction is no different. You want your children taught with the latest research methods and that is what we have been focused on for the last four years."
How do educators assess the range of instructional approaches to identify the most effective? Principal Patty Newman, who initiated Launching Literacy at Mendenhall River School, believes that scientifically based reading research is the key.
"There have been reading wars for decades," Newman said. "There is a pendulum that swings between different philosophies - from explicit direct instruction to simply exposing children to quality literature and they will learn to read. I've been in education for 27 years and I've seen it move from one extreme to the other, and everything in between. You have to think about what the scientific research shows and realize there truly is a balance."
Jane Canaday, another experienced Kindergarten teacher, agreed.
"I felt that I was a good reading teacher, that it was my strength," she said. "But I was frustrated because in every class there were children who struggled all year, despite the additional intervention they received. I am now teaching a whole different way because of the staff development provided by Launching Literacy."
Canaday, who has been working with a small group of the most challenged readers is awed by their progress.
"It is very powerful," she said. "I am amazed with the results. My struggling students are learning, and they are reading beyond basic expectations," she said. "They are learning more than any other kindergarten class that I have ever had. I can't wait to see how they do in first grade and beyond."
The benefits of the program have been broad. Standardized testing scores in math climbed at Mendenhall River last year, suggesting that the focus on the fundamental skill of reading is promoting learning in all subjects.
"When student achievement improves in reading it tends to carry over to all other areas," Newman said.
There is also a heightened sense of collaboration among the school's staff. Newman, Meiners and Harvey, who trained in California, are now training their colleagues. Mendenhall River has an early release time on Fridays. Students leave at 12:45 p.m., providing teachers ninety minutes to work together. This critical piece of the program allows teachers to learn new methods, to work in grade level groups, and to solve problems as a team.
The successes of Launching Literacy are starting to gain recognition beyond Mendenhall River School.
"At least three families have chosen our school specifically for our reading program," Newman said. "And we've had inquiries from two local schools who want to learn more about our approach and the training we received last year in California."
Despite these positive changes, the Launching Literacy program is young. Mendenhall River is still purchasing the materials needed to support its classrooms, and teachers are still learning to implement intensive, explicit reading instruction. Additionally, it will be a few years until the program can be fully assessed using the results of state mandated standardized testing, which begins in third grade. Teachers are anxious to see if the cohort of students showing tremendous early gains in reading skills will score well on the third grade state tests. Yet, in an era where educational funding remains a hot topic and the performance of public schools is increasingly scrutinized, Mendenhall River's program warrants a careful look. It costs very little and the initial results are promising.
"There is really no money involved," Newman said. "The program was largely paid for internally. My school budget, school fundraisers, and our parent teacher group helped us to buy materials, and the state was most gracious in helping to pay tuition for four of us to attend the intensive literacy training in California. Our success truly reflects the dedication of our staff. Change is hard work, but they have put an incredible amount of effort into making sure their students are successful in school, which carries over to success in life."