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High-poverty districts make major inroads on reading

Date: 
Monday, February 25, 2013

Murray Superintendent Alan Miller meets with staff.

Pictured here, Murray Superintendent Alan Miller meets with staff. The Murray district is one example of a system in which poverty doesn’t interfere with student success.

It may be well known that high-poverty schools will have lower proficiency rates than their more affluent counterparts. Sure, it’s well known. But it is wrong.

In fact, there are districts across the state that, despite having 55 percent or more of their student populations qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, have students exceeding the statewide proficiency averages in reading.

Educators from these districts agree that there’s no magic bullet to produce these results: You look at data, determine the right direction to go, and do it. And they are adamant on this: Poverty cannot be used as an excuse for low achievement.

That is not to say that poverty, in and of itself, doesn’t produce its own set of special circumstances.

“Kids come from backgrounds that are not as ready to learn as others when they enter school,” said Tina Gress, principal of Charter Oak-Ute’s elementary school. “We have to do some catch up. But I don’t think you can use low income as a crutch.”

And Tina and her team don’t. Nearly 60 percent of Charter Oak-Ute’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, substantially higher than the state’s average of 43.6 percent. But the school’s third graders have an astounding 92 percent proficient rate in reading. That dwarfs the statewide average of 76 percent.

Those figures don’t surprise Alan Miller, the superintendent of the Murray Community School District. Murray’s third graders also enjoy high proficiency rates in reading. Despite the fact that 62 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the proficiency rate is a whopping 92 percent.

“Poverty is a major hurdle for education,” Alan said. “But in reality, there are no excuses – we educate every student who walks through our doors. Every student should be able to graduate from high school and college regardless of their background.”

The district’s impressive proficiency rates didn’t happen overnight.

“Four years ago when I came, we started using data to drive instruction,” Alan said. “We are making changes in the classroom, individually and in small groups. We’re aligning our curriculum with Iowa Core. And we’ve seen growth throughout the whole k-12.”

The data identified students who were underperforming.

“Based on data, we determined we needed extra assistants to get the students to where they needed to be at,” Alan said. “Instead of a shotgun approach, it is targeted specific areas they work on.”

The Corwith-Wesley-LuVerne district turned to intensified instruction by designating one hour each day to reading.

“This guided reading time does not include time spent on spelling, phonics, or English,” says Principal James Rotert. “Each school day, guided reading is set so every classroom is working on this program at the same time.”

The intensified instruction has helped push the district’s third graders to a 92 percent proficiency rate in reading, despite the fact that 75 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches.

In addition, students and teachers – regardless of their assignments – actively participate in the reading initiative.

“Students set goals for their reading development and are very aware of where they are in their goal progress,” James said. “Along with this, all teachers in the building go in and assist with reading regardless of their normal instructional area.”

Reading skills are also reinforced when working in other content areas to help promote higher-order thinking skills, discussion and questioning skills.

Charter Oak-Ute increased intensified instruction to 90 minutes a day, something that initially overwhelmed teachers and students alike.

“They weren’t happy with some of the things we had to drop, such as morning recess time because we really don’t need that,” Tina said. “They butted heads with me for a couple years, but now they are into it.”

Since this has been seven years in the making, Tina said it is a long-term process.

“It took a few years to see a real difference,” she said. “We do fluency, we do writing. Now teachers say they wish it could longer.”

No matter the practices deployed during school, the reality is that the children come from families in which education may not be as valued – or understood – than in non-poverty families. That’s something that educators must overcome.

“Sometimes mom and dad might not understand the work, and so we need to lend extra supports to the students,” Tina said. “We provide extra things for each student when they aren’t being supported outside the school.”

Getting parent involvement is a key as well.

“We ask that each of the students read for 15 minutes each night from a book of their own choice,” James said. “Parents or guardians sign off on the students reading log showing that they have read. Parent involvement is extremely important and we work to cultivate these relationships.”

Indeed, what may be happening outside school can have a huge impact on school work.

“You have to understand what their needs and wants are,” Alan said. “It can be quite challenging trying to get through to them about how important reading is while they’re worrying about being evicted.”

Achieving higher reading proficiency rates, however, doesn’t allow these districts to rest on their laurels.

“We’re always thinking, ‘What else can we do to push them further?’” Tina said. “We’re never satisfied, we always want more.”

Districts with High Poverty and High 3rd Grade Reading Proficiency
2011-2012 Iowa Assessment/Iowa Alternate Assessment
-Average statewide reading proficiency for 3rd graders: 75.78 percent-
School District % of 3rd Graders Tested that Receive Free/Reduced-Price Lunch % of 3rd Graders Proficient in Reading
Charter Oak-Ute 58.33 91.67
Eldora-New Providence 56.00 86.00
Harmony 58.82 88.24
Corwith-Wesley-LuVerne 75.00 91.67
Murray 61.54 92.31
West Central 73.33 86.67

Criteria Used:

  1. At least 10 students tested in reading in 3rd grade
  2. % FRL Tested >= 55%
  3. % Prof >= 85%

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on April 18, 2014 at 5:00am.