Pawtucket’s $1 million reading program paying off in a big way

Pawtucket’s $1 million reading program paying off in a big way

Darleny Perez composes a sentence about the chicks hatching in the classroom at the Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary School on Monday morning, under the watchful eye of teacher Whitney Goduto. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)

PAWTUCKET – A major investment in a new reading program this year has brought instant results, say school staff members, engaging students in new ways and improving reading comprehension beyond expectations.

Literacy Coach Mary Bergeron told The Valley Breeze during a tour of classrooms at Fallon Elementary and Baldwin Elementary on Monday that she’s yet to hear a negative comment about the American Reading Company (ARC) program, instituted across the district this year for students in grades K-2. Data is updated every day based on regular assessments of students.

In total, Pawtucket’s kindergarten classrooms this year boast 60 percent of students at or above grade level in reading, with another 26 percent “on the cusp,” said Bergeron.

District 1st-graders have grown a year’s worth of reading with one quarter of the year still to go, she said.

The goal for year one of the program was for Pawtucket to have students actively engaged in reading. Currently, 63 percent of students are considered engaged over being simply compliant. That number, based on self-assessment and teacher assessment, more than doubles the totals since the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.

The district currently has 20 classrooms in grades K-2 that have a year’s worth or more of reading growth, and all schools are meeting or exceeding expected growth for reading at this point in the year.

Supt. Patti DiCenso said the district made its $1 million investment in the program to replace a program that lacked the rigor needed to have students reading at level by grade 3.

“This is critical to the foundations needed to prepare our kids for middle school,” she said.

The old program was implemented prior to former Supt. Debbie Cylke.

“The investment was expensive and necessary,” said DiCenso of the money needed for full implementation in grades K-2.

“Substandard programs at this level set the entire system up for failure as children are falling behind starting in kindergarten,” she added.

The curriculum investment provides staff with materials, coaching and professional development. This is a student-centered approach with nationally recognized results, say those making it happen.

Bergeron said there’s been a real shift in thinking among teachers and staff as they’ve integrated reading into every area of school life, and they’ve risen to the occasion in making the program a success and creating a “culture of literacy” in the schools. Administrators were also trained in the program, giving them the knowledge they need to lead the way.

Baldwin Principal Edna Coia noted that teachers themselves are setting the example on reading, posting pictures around the school of them reading on their own. She said the program brings parents into the equation in new and exciting ways.

During Monday’s tour, Baldwin teacher Whitney Goduto showed how the program works, with students participating in various exercises where the teacher takes the role of coach. Students completed a “pass the pen” exercise where they completed sentences based on what they’re studying, in Monday’s case, chicks that are ready to hatch in the classroom. Goduto interacted with the students the entire time, and they talked among themselves about what was being written on the board by a fellow student, offering alternative endings to the sentences.

Goduto said students are showing independence and in many cases taking over the teaching, amazing her each day with what they’re learning.

Bergeron said it was illuminating that students on Monday didn’t want their writing activity to end.

Books are easily accessible to students throughout the classroom, and students are able to choose their areas of focus based on larger research questions. They’re encouraged to listen, then respond.

Lisa Hochwarter, reading specialist at Fallon, said in past years she would have identified students of need and pulled them out of the classroom as part of a separate program. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to work together with teachers, she said, and it was difficult to learn what was going on in classrooms. On Monday, Hochwarter sat in the classroom of 2nd-grade teacher Candy Chamberlain, reassessing children in real time to determine any who were not meeting certain benchmarks. Students are regrouped based on those assessments.

This new process gives students continuity, said Hochwarter, and each child has very concrete reading goals to pursue and attain. Everyone, from administrators and teachers to parents and students, is working together on specific goals, she said.

The best part of the whole program is the books that come with it, said Hochwarter and Bergeron. They’re engaging, colorful and informative, multicultural and inclusive in nature to coincide with the many cultures and types of students represented in the schools.

Accountability is built in, as everyone knows exactly where students are in their progression on a daily basis. Once a student masters a new skill, they move on to the next one. Embedded in the books are the skills students are working on. As Bergeron sees it, the program assesses where students are, determines how they learn, and shows them where they need to go next. Teachers are seeing more benefits the longer they use this very comprehensive program, she said, which is important buy-in as the district looks to make this initiative successful into the future.

During Monday’s visit, Chamberlain was working on partnering up her younger students with 5th-grade “buddy readers,” an important student-to-student component in making this program a success.

The rigorous ARC program works along with an assessment system helping teachers determine “power goals” based on data for “student ownership and teacher direction,” according to the district’s announcement of the program last fall.

The previous Superkids core reading program was implemented during the 2011-2012 school year. The design of the curriculum was one featuring a whole group approach with heavy focus on phonics and lacked an emphasis on authentic reading comprehension, according to DiCenso. Despite grade 3 reading improvements in Pawtucket, there was still a deficit in state scores.

Students with the Superkids program had minimal opportunity to read books at their independent level to grow as readers, and instruction was centered primarily on a whole group and did not always meet the individual needs of the students. Student data did not drive the classroom instruction as the ARC program does.

The ARC program establishes a learning community of teachers, parents, students and administrators, but it’s truly centered on the students. The teacher is seen as a learning coach, and students are encouraged toward inquiry through apprenticeship, or learning by doing. The program, according to the district, meets students where they are and builds on what they know, encouraging children from varying reading proficiency levels, language backgrounds and neighborhoods to develop intellectual curiosity and respect through their daily work.

Whitney Goduto teaches her reading class at the Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary School on Monday morning, April 1.
Lisa Hochwarter, reading specialist at Fallon Elementary School, listens to 2nd-grader Cameron Batista read in his classroom as she conducts an assessment of his progress on Monday. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Ronny Genao, above, writes a sentence about the class chickens with teacher Whitney Goduto, at the Elizabeth Baldwin School, on Monday morning. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)
Kindergartner Kayla Smith pays close attention to her teacher during reading class at the Elizabeth Baldwin School on Monday morning.
All eyes are on teacher Whitney Goduto during a reading class at the Elizabeth Baldwin School on Monday morning.