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Summer school kids getting better

Gains in reading may come from smaller classes, focus on literacy, computer use

Posted: Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Many students in Juneau's new version of summer school made significant gains in reading, school district officials say.

"This reflects a lot of growth for a five-week intervention," said Phil Loseby, principal of the Summer Scholar's Academy. "There are kids who made years of growth."

The academy served about 140 students from grade one to 12 out of the roughly 1,000 students who aren't proficient in reading or math as shown by test scores.

Because of a tight budget, at about $100,000, each of six elementary schools chose 11 children for the program. The middle schools chose 57 students, and the high school 20 students. About three times as many elementary students attended summer school two years ago.

Tracey Martin, the counselor at Auke Bay Elementary, said it was "so painful to say, 'This child gets it. This child doesn't.'"

But students in the academy, which focused on literacy, generally did well because they received a blend of instruction by teachers in small classes and computer-based language training, administrators and teachers said.

Students attended class four hours a day, five days a week.

The school district also offered separate summer programs for some children in special education and fee-based courses for middle school students who were at risk of being held back, and high school students who needed to make up credits.

Martin has taught in the district's summer school before and wasn't sure she was doing any good, she said. She had classes then of about 20 students of widely varying ages. She had to track down absent children.

"Sometimes we put Band-Aids on kids," she said. "We put them in summer school. ... We pat ourselves on the back."

This past summer Martin taught literacy to two groups of 10 fifth- and sixth-graders. She said she would do it again.

Assistant Superintendent Bernie Sorenson looked at past practices and wanted to change them, said Loseby, who is also the district's coordinator of curriculum and assessment.

"The philosophy is we're going to make an impact with the kids and structure it based on research," he said.

Teachers started with information about many of the students' learning problems, Martin said. She was able to focus on literacy. The teachers were trained before the session on how to have very specific language goals for each student, she said. Administrators handled truancy.

Her students ranged from non-readers to those with ninth-grade competence. The child who couldn't read had become a reader by the end of the program, Martin said. Many students gained in competence, though not by a grade level, she said.

Scott May, a special-education teacher in the regular school year, taught two groups of 10 fourth- and fifth-graders in the summer academy. To attract students' interest, he used outer space and the solar system as topics for reading.

"I kind of had creative license in a way to select content which was exciting to me, and kids got excited about it," he said. "The thing that worked for me hugely was it was just 10 kids (at a time). It was a dream."

May gave nine students a task and worked with the 10th student individually.

"I was really able to teach to their errors," he said.

All but three of his 20 students gained in literacy, May said.

Teachers couldn't distinguish between gains from direct instruction and from the Fast ForWord computer-based training. But they said Fast ForWord helped the children. It also provided teachers with more detailed understanding of children's shortcomings in literacy.

In Fast ForWord, children play computer games that increase their ability to distinguish sounds, a fundamental skill in learning a language because languages are spoken fast.

The program also increases the brain's ability to process information, said Loseby, who has led the Fast ForWord program in the district. Children who complete the training often show significant gains in reading and other academic subjects.

Brenda Weaver, a literacy specialist at Riverbend Elementary in the regular school year, worked in the Fast ForWord lab in the summer academy. Two teachers worked with 30 students at a time.

"It's very individualized. That's what I like about Fast ForWord," she said. "The updates are consistently there, so you know exactly how they're progressing. I saw a lot of progress on most of the students who were there."

Weaver also saw students grow in their ability to follow multi-step instructions. Classroom teachers have told her that children who have undergone Fast ForWord are doing better in social studies and math, perhaps because they can read better and hear the teacher better, Weaver said.

In recent years, students who weren't meeting academic standards in English and math could attend summer school for free. The new program was free only to those families who were on the district's list of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Other families paid on a sliding scale up to $220, or about $2 an hour.

Some parents were taken aback by the fees, but no child was turned away for financial reasons, Loseby said.

Martin said a longer program would help more. And she was concerned that some middle school students selected for the program were capable students who didn't need the help.

Weaver said she'd set the lowest age for the summer academy at students going into the third grade, because younger kids lose focus.

"And I would try to expand it so more kids have the opportunity," she said.



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