Willmar, Minn., elementary reading scores showing improvement

WILLMAR -- Willmar's elementary students have improved their reading skills in the first half of the school year, and in some cases the improvement has been dramatic.The Willmar School Board received a mid-year report this week. Literacy coaches ...

WILLMAR - Willmar’s elementary students have improved their reading skills in the first half of the school year, and in some cases the improvement has been dramatic.
The Willmar School Board received a mid-year report this week. Literacy coaches from both elementary schools were also interviewed about the progress made under this year’s new Response to Intervention program.
The program was developed in response to low rankings on statewide standardized tests last spring. Kennedy Elementary is a Priority School with challenges in student achievement and closing the achievement gap between minority and white students. Roosevelt Elementary is a Focus School with challenges in closing the achievement gap.
Kennedy has qualified for a $500,000 federal School Improvement Grant to improve instruction. The district is using Title I funds to provide some of the same services at Roosevelt.
Response to Intervention is a method of assessing and addressing student needs with intensive small group instruction. It addresses the needs of all students, from those just learning English to those who do work beyond their grade level.
According to Director of Teaching and Learning Cheryl Nash, quick, frequent assessments are used to gauge student progress and address needs in a timely manner.
A report of test results displayed each grade’s progress as side-by-side pyramids. Tier 1 is the green base and represents kids who are doing well. Yellow represents Tier 2, kids who need some help, and a red Tier 3 at the top represents students are struggling, Nash said.
The graphics make it easy to see the growth students have made.
The largest change was in the Kennedy first grade, where Tier 1 grew from 49 percent to 81.3 percent and Tier 3 shrank from 26.5 percent to 6.1 percent. Tier 2 also shrank significantly.
Roosevelt first-graders also made strides, increasing Tier 1 from 39 percent to 67 percent, and shrinking Tier 3 from 34 percent to 13 percent.
Kennedy Principal Todd Goggleye said he was impressed with the changes, as Response to Intervention has represented a major shift in how the schools operate.
“We have great teachers in the building,” he said. “Moving kids from red to green, that’s great teaching.”
Among third-graders, teachers discovered a need for more phonics instruction while they were working on reading fluency and speed. While that was going on, progress on some other areas stalled temporarily, Nash said.
“They can’t work on fluency until they fix the phonics,” she said, and she expects the fluency scores to improve after the extra instruction.
Nash and the schools’ literacy coaches have periodically reviewed assessments for each child to make sure he or she was receiving the academic support needed and was in the proper small group. For the two elementary schools, that’s nearly 1,900 students.
The district has hired seven interventionists to work in each school. The interventionists and other specialists move from one grade level to another, spending about a half hour with each grade level’s small groups.
“We’ve asked a lot of them,” said Patti Hoaglund, literacy coach at Kennedy. The interventionists are part-time employees, and most are not trained as teachers.
“They are good at listening, following directions and asking questions,” Hoaglund said. They follow lesson plans that have been prepared for them and report on progress to teachers.
“They are 100 percent dedicated to our kids,” added Karen Douglass, the Roosevelt literacy coach. “You have to shoo them out the door sometimes.”
Intervention time is intense for everyone involved, she said, but students have responded well. “They know the expectations, and they’re used to it.”
Nash said Response to Intervention has been used in other districts, but she did not know if it had been tried in schools as big as Willmar’s.
Willmar’s test results and growth stack up well with other Priority and Focus schools in the state, according to school officials.
Carrie Thomas, a continuous improvement specialist at Kennedy, said other schools that qualified for a School Improvement Grant have seen test results that have been flat or show little improvements.
Roosevelt Principal Nathan Cox said he was at a Response to Intervention conference where he saw test results from a school’s third year in the program that lined up with Willmar, which began the program last fall.
“To take this beast on in buildings with 950 kids, I think it’s been phenomenal,” Cox said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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