Houlton creates culture of reading, high expectations

Houlton Elementary School’s Reading First grant has helped the school transform into a community with high expectations for every student.

HOULTON — Students are surrounded by literacy the moment they enter Houlton Elementary School. They have no choice.

Student work that integrates art, math and language covers the hallway walls.

Bulletin boards are filled with samples of student writing.

Color-coded charts on the teacher workroom walls show which students need more staff attention as they learn to read, and which students are reading at or above grade level.

The walls display a culture of reading that’s taken five years to establish through a regimen of intensive teacher training, wholesale changes in instructional practice and constant analysis of students’ reading performance data.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited Houlton Elementary School on April 6 to learn more about the Reading First Initiative that’s spurred the school-wide transformation aimed at dramatically improving students’ reading skills.

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The 410-student school in southern Aroostook County is one of 25 schools across Maine that have received Reading First grants over the past five years. The grants — which were targeted at the lowest-performing elementary schools in their districts — have allowed the schools to hire and train literacy experts who work with teachers and students, train teachers to use a range of research-based instructional practices, and regularly test students’ skills to determine how effective the instruction is.

“It used to be, every time a child had trouble, you’d send them off to special ed,” said Houlton Elementary School Principal Candace Crane.

Now, staff members are quick to intervene with students struggling to pick up reading skills.

In the classroom, teachers work to keep every student engaged, largely by staying away from lecture-style instruction in favor of a classroom style that has, simultaneously, some students reading in pairs, others working with teachers and others practicing their writing.

“We’ve got some differentiation, and also some independent reading,” Crane said.

The changes brought about by Reading First appear to have paid off. The percentage of Houlton students at risk of permanently falling behind their peers has dropped 65 percent over the five-year span of Reading First to just 7 percent of students, according to results from the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills exam.

In the fall of 2010, 79 percent of Houlton third graders scored “proficient” or better on the reading portion of the New England Common Assessment Program test. The statewide average for third graders was 69 percent.

“We can see a huge change,” third-grade teacher Debbie Melvin told Bowen. “The higher expectations, they’re there, and the kids know it.”

But that change didn’t come easily.

The grant program — which has totaled more than $1 million for Houlton — began with a requirement that teachers leave the classroom at least a day a month to attend training workshops with other Reading First recipients and meet with colleagues to analyze students’ performance data. Every Houlton teacher has also completed two graduate-level literacy courses.

The Reading First grant has covered the cost of substitutes during teachers’ out-of-classroom time.

“Teachers do not like being out of the classroom,” said first-grade teacher Tara Austin. But “we took a negative and turned it into a positive.”

When teachers began regularly meeting with their colleagues, they started better coordinating lessons so all students would receive the same quality of instruction. The coordination also helped alleviate teachers’ workloads after a stressful introduction to the Reading First program.

“You made sure you weren’t duplicating work,” Austin said.

While the Reading First workload was taxing on teachers, the change in culture soon had everyone convinced of the need to stick with it.

“As the data have improved, teachers’ own sense of value has improved, so it’s easier to keep going,” said Sally Cole, a reading interventionist.

The current school year is the last during which Houlton Elementary School will receive Reading First funding. And because the program hasn’t been renewed at the federal level, there’s no possibility of receiving more funds.

Houlton will likely be able to keep much of the program in place without the funding stream, Crane said. “We’ve not got coaches who are very knowledgeable and can do a lot of professional development for us right on site,” she said.

The difficult part, she said, will be covering with local funds the cost of students’ regular reading assessments and substitute teachers who cover for staff members when they’re out of the classroom receiving training.

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