Designing a Team-Based Literacy Program to Maximize Student Growth

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by Cary Charlebois

Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Staff Development for Elementary Literacy at Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School

Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE) and co-founder Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative launched Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in Roxbury in 2012. Our vision was to provide a world-class education for all students, to prepare outstanding new teachers for Boston’s public schools (BPS) and to drive improvement of all schools in the Dudley area of Roxbury. We are an in-district charter, fully part of BPS. 85% of our students live in households that are designated as low income. In this context, we set out to achieve 85% third grade reading proficiency. EdVestors was a key partner in the school’s early years, supporting our work to achieve this bold goal from the fall of 2012 through last spring.

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Many challenges were immediately evident upon launch. Our students arrived with significant academic, social and emotional needs. Just 14% of students entered the school reading on grade level in 2012. Only 33% of third graders across the city of Boston read at grade level, and research correlates third grade reading level with key outcomes such as high school graduation and college completion. This statistic serves as a motivating force for teachers and administrators at our school.  We believed that if we instituted a coherent instructional model, together with an alternative staffing model, every child would receive the personalized instruction they needed to be able to read proficiently by third grade.

We developed our system for literacy instruction in the context of our Teaching Academy model, in which our teachers and teacher residents from Boston Teacher Residency advance their own learning while working together to ensure student learning. Two key elements of the Teaching Academy model make our literacy strategy possible. First, our differentiated staffing model includes grade level teams for grades 3 through 5 consisting of a literacy teacher, a math teacher, teacher residents, teacher educators who coach the residents, a special educator, and Dudley Promise Corps (DPC) members. Departmentalizing math and literacy allows teachers to focus on instructional quality and coherence in their content area. This differentiated staffing group delivers standards-aligned, customized instruction to students. Directors of Instruction lead a weekly, 90 minute grade level common planning time and work closely with the grade level team to ensure the team works together efficiently.  Each teacher learns to coordinate up to four adults and designate roles in order to effectively use their skills and knowledge.

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Secondly, within this structure, students are placed in multiple data-informed reading level groups. Our data tools, systems, and culture allow us to monitor student growth, zero-in on weaknesses, and design interventions to meet student learning needs.

By the end of the school’s first year, 52% of students were reading on grade level. By the end of this past year, the school’s 4th year, 68% were reading on grade level.  At the end of last year, over a third of the school’s students—distributed fairly evenly across grade levels—were reading at least three months above their grade level expectation.

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One significant success story lies in the intersection of our data systems and the development of the role of our DPC members.  Through the study of student data we discovered that one on one intervention, using the Reading Partners method and curriculum, was especially impactful for students who were a half grade level behind in their reading skills. DPC members now focus on these students. Last year 84% of this group achieved a year or more of expected growth in literacy. DPC members have been encouraged by the growth they’ve seen in students.

“We get one-on-one time with students and we get to know them as people and as learners”, said corps member Naomi Bones. “I love seeing their reading skills transfer into the classroom. I often observe students in their classrooms and think, ‘Hey, I taught her how to do that!’”

As we’ve refined our practices over four years running the Dudley Street School, we have learned that the intentional use of school resources (student and teacher schedules, staffing, specialized supports) ensure that we have the human capital, structures, and strategies in place to meet the academic needs of our broad array of diverse learners. We believe this model is replicable, and hinges on a school’s ability to organize existing adults – such as instructional coaches, AmeriCorps tutors and student teachers – around the needs of each student.  Moving forward, we are fine-tuning our instructional model so that we continue to see an increase of students reading on grade level.