Literacy superstars

Published 8:58 am Monday, June 9, 2014

By David Vitrano

The Daily News

Standardized test scores almost always elicit some kind of reaction — whether celebratory or otherwise — but some test scores at Byrd Avenue Elementary School in Bogalusa this year drew not only reactions but some very unusual visitors.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the students became superstars as a film crew descended on the school to document the success the school has had with its new literacy program.

According to Byrd Avenue Curriculum Coaches Melissa Moses and Karen Hillhouse, the turn of events is the result of dealing with—rather than fighting—the controversial Common Core State Standards.

“We had to decide what (curriculum) to select to support Common Core,” said Moses.

She said after consulting with teachers, Core Knowledge Language Arts was chosen because it offered a more concrete formula, including lesson plans.

“If (the teachers) had chosen one of the others, it would have been more work for them,” noted Hillhouse.

Lesson plans are not everything, however, and Moses and Hillhouse said another factor in the decision was the material itself. Not only are the reading materials more interesting than other programs they had looked at, but much of it is based on fact, so it relates to other subjects the youngsters are studying and can be built upon in later lessons.

“The children were able to grasp the material,” said Moses. “And they retained it.”

“it’s amazing to watch these kindergarteners read and have a discussion,” added Hillhouse.

The curriculum was developed by some of the same people who developed Common Core itself, and after just one year of using it, the results were not only noticeable, but significant. During the course of the school year, the students at Byrd Avenue take the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, test three times per year. The first sets the bar, the second shows progress, and the third measures the true growth of the student through the course of the school year.

“Our DIBEL scores have just gone through the roof,” said Elementary Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor Debbie Jenkins. “Our kids are reading like gangbusters.”

She said this year goals for the students were set higher than ever before, and these goals were not only met but surpassed.

This success caused Amplify, the company that provides the Core Knowledge curriculum to take notice.

“Debbie Jenkins at Bogalusa let us know about the kinds of results they were seeing with CKLA during their first year using the program. A couple of us made a visit to Byrd Avenue and were very impressed by the work they are doing there, so when the opportunity came up to film at the school, we grabbed it,” said Amplify Deputy Director of Communications Jane Dornemann.

Enter the film crew that disrupted morning classes in the most pleasant of ways.

After filming interviews with the teachers, the classes themselves were filmed putting Core Knowledge Language Arts into practice.

“We’ll be showing the footage to other schools that want to learn more about CKLA, how it has worked for a district like Bogalusa and how it might work for their students,” said Dornemann. “We also want to use some of the teaching footage to model classroom instruction for professional development.”

Although some charter schools in the state are using the curriculum, Bogalusa City Schools was the only district in Louisiana to use the program during the 2013-14 school year, but according to Dornemann, others have decided to follow suit.

Of course, the best curriculum in the world cannot be successful without the right people to enforce it, and Moses, Hillhouse and Byrd Avenue Principal Sheila Lawrence are quick to give credit where it is due.

“The teachers have done an excellent job with it,” said Lawrence.

“Our teachers are very hard working and dedicated,” said Moses. “They’re always bringing in artifacts and making it real for (the students).”

Hillhouse added, “When (the teachers) get here, they hit the ground running, and it doesn’t stop until they put (the students) on the bus.”

Dornemann agreed.

“The school has had such success with CKLA because they are using the program with great fidelity,” she said. “The teachers, principal and curriculum specialists have clearly worked very hard to implement the program in full.”

The curriculum coaches also believe that embracing Common Core has given the school’s teachers — and students — a leg up in the educational process.

“Common Core is good teaching,” said Hillhouse. “It teaches children to live in a society where everyone works together.”

They also believe that having high expectations, regardless of a child’s socio-economic background, is an important component to success in school.

Said Moses, “Never underestimate what a child can do.”