A Small Program That’s Getting Big Results

Boston Herald, Jun 5, 2007

WEST WARREN – Abby is a superstar in Ms. Gaudreau’s kindergarten class. It’s not that the pig-tailed little blonde is reading perfectly; it’s just that she’s reading. She came to the Warren Community Elementary School in September not even knowing her letters. Now she can read “Jim and Kim” – with a little help and encouragement – just like her classmates.

In a second kindergarten class one small group is looking for rhyming words (cat, bat and they have to pick a third), while another group is reading “Jen and Max” with their teacher and discussing the “setting” and the “plot.” Yes, that would be kindergarten kids discussing plot and knowing the meaning of the word.

How cool is that!

The whole school (450 students strong) has come under the spell – and there is no other word for it – of a new reading program now operating in eight elementary schools throughout the state.

Superintendent Carol C. Jacobs explains that where once you’d see children sitting quietly at row upon row of desks, “now you hear a busy hum” as they gather in small groups.
It’s the sound of children learning – and loving it.

But they’re not the only ones. Teachers, who under this program get special instruction themselves and mentoring and support, weren’t sold on it from the get-go.

“Last year we used the ‘letter people’ program and we liked it,” said Heather Gaudreau. “It was warm and fuzzy and we were holding on tight to it. But this program doesn’t let you fail. Last year my at-risk group barely knew their sounds of letters. This year we started with 10 in the at-risk group. They’re down to five, and they’re reading as well as my middle group did last year.”

It’s not magic. It’s just putting together the right materials with the right support system – a program economist Ed Moscovitch came upon in Alabama – yes, you read that right. And because Moscovitch (who writes the occasional column for these pages) is a numbers guy he looked at the numbers – the success rate for the Alabama program as measured against national reading benchmarks and the previous year’s performance at each school. The result is the Bay State Reading Institute.

And this year’s results for the Warren school are already in. Every grade showed improvement in hitting those national benchmarks between fall and spring. Of those whiz-kid kindergartners, 68 percent were at benchmark on full-word fluency in the fall; 98 percent hit benchmark this spring.

“It’s short money with long result,” said Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre). “And don’t forget, these kids don’t start with what kids in Weston do.”

The program, which had been left out of the governor’s budget, was restored by the House at $1.5 million – which would allow it to expand to eight or nine new schools. You’d think a guy who last week put education at the top of his priority list might want to get beyond the cliches about “the whole child” and longer school days and look at how those days can be filled with a program that works.

Nothing is more fundamental than reading. The kids in Warren are doing better in math because they can read the word problems, said Elizabeth Zielinski, director of curriculum instruction assessment. The same goes for social studies. But even more importantly “they feel better about themselves.”

And isn’t that what we want for all kids?

Rachelle Cohen is editor of the editorial page.