By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Saying that the challenges for the Reading and Literacy Department are the same as the challenges for the whole system—changing demographics, Special Education needs, enrollment increases, Common Core standards with accelerated curriculum, and other mandates—program director Dr. Susan Rozen presented the School Committee with an overview on Tuesday night of how she and the Reading and Literacy faculty will address multiple shifting requirements, particularly at the lower grade levels.
Rozen said that in addition to the federal Common Core standards, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has added its own requirements and modifications, which will particularly affect Bedford’s elementary education.
Additionally, because Massachusetts is a Race to the Top state, student growth will be measured differently using PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests, which will replace the MCAS in 2014. In addition to those tests, World Class Design and Assessment (WIDA) standards will require all educators to receive certification in English as a Second Language (ESL).
Rozen explained that many of the 15-member Reading and Literacy staff—teachers, coaches, tutors and interventionists—have advanced degrees and extensive training in all manner of literacy programs and strategies. The focus of the Department is to assess, analyze, and remediate students district-wide, and to work with administrators to develop reading and literacy curriculum.
Regarding the assessment piece of their work, Rozen said that it is the department’s goal to catch students in the early years that need support so they don’t go through the system becoming discouraged by years of struggle and failure.
“Students sometimes present as ‘problems’ who adversely affect classroom progress,” Rozen said in a memo prepared for the presentation. “Identification of their hidden strengths combined with remediation can help improve their performance.”
Some of the students served by the Reading program are severely reading-disabled or language- disabled but others are mainstream students who have weaknesses in reading comprehension. Still others are those who read at or even above grade level, but would benefit from skill development and strategies such as the “Reading for College” course offered at the high school.
“We need phonics taught in the classroom [in the earliest years] in an explicit manner so that we make sure those students who aren’t going to pick it up naturally get what they need, because they’re going to continue to need it through 12th grade. Decoding isn’t a skill you learn in the elementary levels and [then] say ‘bye’ to. . . . It’s important throughout a child’s development in school,” Rozen said.
The other skill elements besides decoding that must be mastered to achieve basic reading abilities are vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. “The kids who don’t get vocabulary skills [in the early grades] fall behind and never catch up, and that’s why reading is so important and why explicit instruction in vocabulary is important,” Rozen said. “If the student has [these] skills in place, the comprehension grows with the student.”
A 90-minute literacy-blocks program is in its third year, and Rozen and the Reading faculty are beginning to be able evaluate the outcomes. The work done in the literacy blocks includes guided reading groups, differentiated instruction of small groups and individuals, and writing workshops.
Rozen noted how much valuable emphasis and instruction Linda Volpicelli, K-5 English Language Arts (ELA) Coordinator, has done in writing with programs like “Empowering Writers,” using the three writing forms—persuasive, expository, and narrative—throughout the curriculum. Rozen also noted that more emphasis has been placed on writing as a result of the department’s 2011 self-study.
In order to rise to the newest level of challenge presented by the Common Core standards and PARCC testing, Rozen said that it is necessary to provide ways in which students can go deeper into the material and that Linda Volpicelli has been leading the way on this initiative at Lane School. Other action items for the department are a reassessment of the curriculum, with increases in non-fiction reading and expository text writing, and a better understanding of the PARCC tests so that the faculty can begin to prepare students in advance of 2014, when the exams will first be administered.