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Reading Heaven in Illinois

A little bit of heaven in Illinois:
reading in a small school
by Mary Damer
December 12, 1999

Last week I unknowingly walked into the most delightful K-3 school (Algonquin School, Park Forest, Illinois) that I have seen in many years. When I asked the principal, Ms. Jones, if I could publicize this little gem she has nurtured, she nodded in the affirmative. And so I find myself wanting to tell as many folks as I can about a small school that appears to have taken a course to excellence in its service to a large percentage of minority students in a lower income area.

Initially, I was contacted by the special education director to provide assistance to a special education teacher at Algonquin School who was having difficulty with her class. My first indication that I was about to see something very special came as I sat in the principal's office waiting for her to finish the early morning announcements. Those of you who have been on the Loop for awhile have probably read some of my more critical commentary about some of the phony, very lengthy self-esteem building announcements that I have had to endure over the years. In contrast, this principal in three or four short minutes managed to fit in the pledge and a glowing commendation about how the school now held the award for having the highest percentage of student attendance and on-time arrivals. I knew that when this principal vivaciously exhorted the students not to let another close-runner-up for the award win it back next month, that this school would probably keep the award for the rest of the school year. Before the classes formally started, all of the students and teachers repeated a wonderfully invigorating saying about working their hardest and learning a lot. The announcements ended with the principal telling the students an inspirational big vocabulary word for the day, which the principal later posted on the wall in the main corridor along with the definition. I made a mental note that these were the best announcements that I had ever heard in any school.

For the next hour, I observed in the designated classroom, analyzing what this special education teacher needed to do differently. Few schools ever use my skills in this direct manner and I was impressed at the school district's course of action with a teacher who was having difficulty. Later that morning when I walked into the teachers' lounge to use the washroom, my eyes bugged out as I heard teachers animatedly talking about how most of the kindergartners were reading since it was only December. This probably sounds hokey, but the enthusiasm and joy in that lounge reminded me of my grandfather's farm in the Spring when the lambs were born. I had to rush back to the classroom, but I was aching to know what the staff were using to teach reading. A Whole Language school just could never get these results.

Soon the class I was observing walked to music class and as I accompanied them, I saw two small groups of readers at opposite ends of the hallway working with adults on the Direct Instruction Reading Mastery curriculum. After the music class, when the principal stopped me to find out how the morning was going, I asked her how the school had come to use the DI program with their at-risk readers rather than Reading Recovery. She looked at me and said, "But the whole school started to use the DI phonics program last year and now the kindergartners are reading before the Christmas break." When I asked her how the staff learned to teach such a difficult curriculum, she told me the superintendent had started all six schools using it and that the teachers had undergone a great deal of training in order to teach phonics effectively. The training was still ongoing and once a month a team of people observed all of the teachers and gave them "grow and glows," detailing what they should improve and what they were doing that was effective. In addition to the DI reading, the schools also used DI language and Saxon math.

Incredulous at the direction this school had taken, I timidly asked, "So you teach these subjects to the whole classroom group?" "Oh no, " she replied. "We form as many groups as we can, depending upon where the child is with the material." Since it was just last year in a neighboring suburb that I came across a principal who said that school board policy did not allow for any type of grouping, even to let the children read different books," I blinked my eyes in wonderment. Ms. Jones continued by proudly telling me about how all the teachers taught the same subject at the same time so that they could group for children who needed to go to a different grade. Another teacher joined the conversation and proudly talked about a first grader who was now reading in Reading Mastery 3. The staff had made all sorts of changes so that this child could go to reading class with the older students. I revelled in their pride and assistance to this high achiever. The principal later explained that she helps the teachers give the timed assessments to their students in order to make sure that every student is progressing. "It sure can get boring, taking those timings, but the teachers need the help. What else can I do?" The principal's halo started glowing at that moment, and I knew that she would meet all of Elaine McEwan's criteria for an effective principal.

By now it was clear to me that a child would receive a better K-3 education in this relatively poor school district than in my flashy west suburb. The staff in this school were implementing the Joplin grouping, a solid skills approach, and the challenges that we all want to see in education at this early level. By the time I went to lunch with the students, I wasn't surprised to see the most tranquil, civilized student lunchroom that I have seen these past ten years (with the exception of one middle-school west suburban lunch room where the assistant principal worked for two years to establish a harmonious environment). Typically, I dread spending 20 minutes in any student lunch room because of the excessively loud volume as students shout in an echoing gym. In one of the worst situations eight years ago, I had been in another nearby south suburb and found myself in the middle of a food fight, with plates and food flying fast and hard. In contrast, a gym teacher ran the lunch room in this school and quiet, conversational voices were expected. More amazingly no students who were waiting in line for food pushed or shoved. The staff expected excellence from these students and they were getting it in return.

Editor's note:
Elizabeth Reynolds, the woman responsible for this miracle in Park Forest, has since been appointed as superintendent of schools in Melrose Park. In her new position she acted quickly, installing Direct Instruction as the district's reading program and Saxon as the district's math program. Reynolds is quoted, "Our expectation is to have kids reading in kindergarten ... We will not have kids making it to third and fourth grades not reading." Read more in this December 2002 story from the Melrose Park Herald.

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