WILLIAMSTOWN - Four years ago, some Connecticut schools took on a new, intensive school-wide literacy model known as Connecticut Kindergarten-Grade 3 Literacy Initiative. It's involved planning, instruction, intervention, ongoing coaching and training, and forging partnerships with parents. Since then, participants have been able to as much as double the number of students meeting grade-level literacy goals, significantly narrowing a once stubborn achievement gap.
Janet Stratton wants to see that happen for schools in this region and across the commonwealth. She is the president of The Reading Institute, a Main Street-based education and teaching training center, where its motto is, "Helping children learn by training teachers."
Stratton said schools across the nation have struggled with student literacy deficits for years. The big issue, she said, is that teachers, staff, administrators and state education officials are not all on the same page at the same level of commitment using the same approach and materials to help kids achieve those goals.
"All schools teach reading and writing, but they don't have clear goals, objectives and actions plans around literacy," Stratton said. "We know that if companies don't have a business plan, they're going to fail, so why are we doing things differently in schools?"
If kids aren't reading well, they're not learning to the best of their abilities.
In Berkshire County's two cities, Pittsfield and North Adams, students in the third grade - a key indicator year of student reading comprehension and lifelong learning success - have been stuck for the past several years, with only about half of third-graders reading at grade level, according to state data. Statewide over the past decade, third-graders have peaked with about 60 percent of them reading at grade level, based on state assessment data.
"We need to do more than what we are doing to educate our students in Massachusetts. We need to close the achievement gap. The Connecticut reading initiative demonstrates it can be done," Stratton said.
To get the ball rolling, about 80 teachers and administrators from the Berkshires, as well as neighboring schools in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and Vermont, attended earlier this month a day-long training on how schools can lead and plan large-scale change in literacy rates. The presenters have been at the forefront of using research to develop strategies for the the Connecticut Literacy Initiative: Darci Burns, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Hill for Literacy consulting and planning group, and Mike Coyne, Ph.D., is a University of Connecticut professor and research scientist with the Neag School of Education's Center for Behavioral and Educational Research.
Burns said the process of assessing what schools do and do not have is "not rocket science."
"Most schools now have a data system ... but we're not collecting data to do nothing with it. Schools need to take the time to reflect on what [they] do have," she said.
"You would think that it happens but it doesn't," said Jill Pompi, a reading specialist for Richmond Consolidated School who teaches courses relative to literacy and curriculum for Simmons College. She said often hears how teacher buy-in is a struggle.
Coyne recognized that going through this planning process is easier said than done. "Schools are stressed and feel like there's so much going on, but this model tries to help you work smarter, not just harder," he said.
It also helps when you have state support. Connecticut's initiative has been recognized by the governor and funded by the state Department of Education, which put teams of reading interventionists and literacy coaches into 34 participating elementary schools.
Over the course of four years in the program, the rate of students at high risk for reading failure dropped from 34 percent to 12 percent in schools in Hartford, East Hartford, New Haven and Windham.
"These schools committed to reading as a top school priority," Coyne told Connecticut lawmakers this past spring. "They approached this challenge with a sense of urgency, a level of intensity, and an attention to detail that frankly is highly unusual for typical education reforms and initiatives."
Stratton said she's contacted Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's office in hopes that his administration will consider adopting a program like this for the commonwealth.