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Grand Rapids schools dedicating 2 hours daily to literacy

By Monica Scott/The Grand Rapids Press (TNS) • Aug 25, 2018 at 6:00 PM

GRAND RAPIDS — Every morning Grand Rapids Public Schools is dedicating a two-hour block of time to literacy instruction for students in kindergarten through second grade at 14 schools to improve proficiency in English language arts.

The new reading initiative kicked off earlier this week. GRPS was among six districts returning to class Aug. 20.

Next school year, state law requires schools to hold back third-graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading. Superintendents will have the option to grant exemptions in some instances.

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said the district will be "more focused and intentional'' this school year on how literacy interactions are planned and implemented to move the needle on reading.

"We want to emphasize the joy of reading and instill a love for books,'' said Neal, about getting kids to want to read for pleasure, not just for building literacy skills crucial for school and career.

Twenty-three percent of GRPS students were proficient in English language arts at the end of the third grade, according to state data. The proficiency rate for the schools involved in the initiative range from 5.1 percent to 37.3 percent.

Statewide just 44 percent of students were proficient in English language arts at the end of third grade.

Last school year, to ensure more kids would be proficient, school districts and charter schools had to have programs in place such as for screening students and early interventions.

"During the morning literacy block, teachers will provide engaging instruction, including in phonological and phonemic awareness and word works (phonics, vocabulary and spelling),'' said Bridget Cheney, executive director of Elementary and PreK-8 Schools for GRPS.

"We are being very intentional and strategic to increase the level of learning and achievement.''

Cheney said teachers will be reading aloud to students, there will be interactive reading where the students join in, independent reading, as well as guided reading that involves the teacher working with small groups of students who demonstrate similar reading behaviors.

She said lessons will be data-driven, designed around areas students have learning deficits. She said during the 120-minute literacy block there will be a handful of literacy stations where students can engage in activities to build literacy skills.

The 14 elementary and K-8 schools involved in the literacy block and their reading proficiency rate at the end of third grade are:

Aberdeen (20), Brookside (18.2), Burton (8.7), Campus (10.3), Cesar Chavez (7.4), Coit (37.3), Dickinson (11.8), East Leonard (23.5), Gerald R. Ford Academic Center (30.4), Harrison Park (28.9), Ken-O-Sha (15), Kent Hills (10.5), MLK Leadership Academy (14.3), and Sherwood Global Studies Academy (5.1).

MLK, Campus and Brookside were part of a literacy block pilot last school year and showed some improvement, according to Cheney.

Neal said she is confident the district will see more improvement in reading because they have the right strategy and right people to implement it effectively.

She said since she took the reins, the district went from 15 to one state designated priority school - Alger Middle.

Neal said one of the successes of her Transformation Plan, now in its third phase, has been increased parent engagement, student attendance and graduation rates.

"We believe in our students and have high expectations,'' she said. "I want to continue to work together with our parents to see more gains in achievement.''

School and district M-STEP passage rates have generally reflected student socio-demographics.

That means schools serving largely affluent and middle-class families are likely to have higher average scores than districts with large numbers of children in poverty.

Godfrey-Lee and Wyoming schools districts, for example, are two other high-poverty districts like Grand Rapids that were among districts statewide with the fewest students passing the reading test at 26.9 percent and 28.7 percent, respectively.

For at least four years, West Michigan school districts have been ramping up its literacy efforts. In 2014, around 100 school districts, including those in the Kent ISD, banded together to share best practices to boost reading scores.

The Reading Now Network, comprised of 20 counties, is focused on improving early literacy, and student achievement across all grade levels. In 2015, a symposium was held at the Kent ISD to share the results and best practices, such as literacy blocks, from a field study.

A team of eight educators learned about the common threads among five West Michigan elementary schools, where K-3 students outperformed their peers with similar demographics on literacy measures. An emphasis on reading was common.

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