Celebrating Iowa's Success: Gilbert Elementary School
You would be hard-pressed to find more momentum in early literacy in the state than at Gilbert Elementary School.
Gilbert Elementary, which is north of Ames, has stepped up its early literacy efforts over the past eight years. And the efforts are paying off: Only about 4 percent of the school’s third graders have been identified as having a substantial deficiency in reading. That’s compared to the statewide average of about 24 percent.
Gilbert Elementary’s story was one of several shared at Wednesday's Celebrating Iowa’s Success, an early literacy symposium in Des Moines. The symposium was sponsored by Collaborating for Iowa’s Kids, a partnership among Iowa’s school districts, area education agencies and the Iowa Department of Education.
The purpose of the event was for Iowa educators and school administrators to celebrate and learn from schools that are making headway in their early literacy interventions.
For Gilbert Elementary School, success didn’t come overnight. The school has worked on literacy efforts for the past eight years through targeted Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).
“Our grade-level teams are the foundation to our approach to meeting our students’ needs in early literacy,” said Principal Staci Edwards.
The teams are designed to create frank conversations.
“Teachers really are opening up and sharing what works and what doesn’t work,” said Curriculum Director Carrie Clark. “They look at data and say ‘what did you do to help your kids?’ It is a team effort. It is not by classroom.”
It’s through these conversations that the educators are able to determine the best strategies.
“Instead of saying we have this big bank of strategies, we can say ‘we know this one particular strategy works consistently over time,’” Edwards said.
The implementation of the school’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation system, or TLC, was a big contributing factor to literacy success.
“Before, each team had some great elements,” Edwards said. “Now we have some very strong structures and our work is consistent across the board."
The school uses a data warehouse to keep track of each student’s performance.
“As kindergartners move to first grade, teachers can see the data right away,” Edwards said. “The data warehouse keeps track of all the numbers, such as universal screening, Iowa Assessment, and classroom data. We are constantly keeping track to see small incremental successes, as well as ‘whoa, we need more work here.’”
The school’s instructional coach participates in PLCs and guides discussion.
“The coach is there to drive those questions, such as ‘what do you see with this data?’ and ‘what resources do you need for this?’” Clark said.
“It is not about telling the team what to do,” Edwards said. “Teachers have to have ownership of it.”
Professional development, or PD, also is a critical component.
“For instance, about one in five students has some form of dyslexia,” Edwards said. “We felt it was important to have everyone get PD with dyslexia training.”
And to that end, the school used grant funds to purchase Fundations for Reading, which is geared toward a structured language approach that is especially good for students – both with dyslexia and without.
The school uses two full-time reading teachers for students in kindergarten through second grade. The teachers are used throughout the day and vary pull-out times with students so that the students are not constantly missing the same instruction for each pull out.
In addition to the 90-minute literacy blocks, the school also has developed a 30-minute intervention block aimed at all students’ needs.
“For teachers, it is all hands on deck,” Clark said. “If you teach second grade, for example, it’s not just the five second-grade teachers working separately. They all work together. All students go into groups that have similarly identified needs. We pay close attention to the data to be able to move a student once a deficit is removed.”
Initially, there was some pushback from teachers who were especially concerned about their struggling students.
“They were asking, ‘how do I know you are going to do what needs to be done when I’m not there,’” Clark said. “You have to build trust with one another.”
Progress monitoring is done weekly, and data reviews are conducted every four to six weeks to evaluate the needs for intervention and to determine needs.
Teachers and administrators are confident in their program.
“You are not going to get out of our program a ‘oh, here’s a third grader who didn’t make the program,’” Edwards said.
Ultimately, Edwards would like to see an intensive summer reading program for all the lower grades rather than just post-third grade.
“We know that the earlier we can intervene, the greater the likelihood the child won’t run into problems in the third grade,” she said.
And, finally, the school – both students and staff alike – celebrate successes.
“For instance, we had 134 students who were going to be progress-monitored following the fall assessments,” Edwards said. “By December, 103 of them met the winter benchmark. But before that information was released to teachers, our instructional coach started posting ‘103’ around saying, ‘guess what this number is about?’ People were thrilled when they finally found out. It was a great way to say ‘thank you’ for your hard work.”