Lit seminar classes face challenges

Feature+photo+by+Maribeth+Eiken.+

Feature photo by Maribeth Eiken.

Urmilla Kuttikad

Feature photo by Maribeth Eiken.
Feature photo by Maribeth Eiken.

This 2013-14 school year, 123 Rock Bridge students were eligible for the reading instruction program, also known as Literacy Seminar, offered at the high school. This number easily surpasses the number of eligible students any year prior. However, only 36 of these students, less than 30 percent, are actually taking the class at RBHS.

Furthermore, beginning this year, the process by which the district determines whether students are eligible for reading instruction classes has improved in accuracy and thoroughness, CPS Social Studies and Language Arts Coordinator Nick Kremer said.

“We’ve been doing reading intervention for as long as students have been in school,” Kremer said. “A typical day would be about a 15-minute mini-lesson where we focus on a reading strategy, and then the rest of the block would generally be reading time. And you’d have tasks to do as you read, but it’s what we call a workshop model. We’ve been doing that approach for a while. What is kind of new this year is the way we’re trying to identify students and using that to be much more deliberate about who we recommend.”

According to Kremer, the process consists of three steps. The first is the STAR Reading Assessment, which all students take at the beginning of the school year. Scoring at or below the 25th percentile is the first indicator that a student may be eligible for reading instruction.

The second step is another reading assessment called the Diagnostic Reading Evaluation for Secondary Students. The DRESS is more individualized and personal, where teachers sit down with students one-on-one to administer the test. Scoring poorly on the DRESS is the second indicator that a student may need reading instruction.

The third and final step is a survey that is sent to all the teachers of the particular student. Its questions concern what the teacher has seen in regards to the student and their reading skills. If the teacher confirms that they’ve noticed the student may need help with reading and comprehension, the school then acknowledges that the student could greatly benefit from being a part of the reading intervention program, though the student isn’t required to take the class. Kremer said this new, more-detailed process is an improvement over the previous system.

“In the past, [the process] was, if an individual teacher recommended you, that’s kind of how you were on our radar, and that’s how we followed up,” Kremer said. “And while it worked well for those students, there were a number of students that got left behind or left off the radar. And so by moving to a more databased approach, what we’re hoping is that we catch all students that need it.”

With 123 students “on the radar” at RBHS alone and an additional 321 at Hickman and Battle combined, it would seem that the new system is working well in identifying the students that need help. However, with only 36 students enrolled in the Literacy Seminar class at RBHS, only a fraction of those 123 are actually getting the help they need.

The reason for that discrepancy could lie in many places. One of the reasons, suggested by RBHS principal Dr. Jen Mast, is funding. She explained that each building, in order to determine how much staffing it has and in what areas, gets a certain amount of FTE (Full-Time Equivalent), which is how many full-time teaching positions a school can offer.

“We have a certain amount of FTE, and then we have to determine where it goes,” Mast said. “So the decision was made to spend our FTE differently. It wasn’t like we were given, here’s a certain amount of FTE for reading, and then we then pulled it away and used it in different areas. In order to have FTE for reading, we have to use it out of the big chunk.”

When schools recommend students for the reading intervention program, the students have the chance to opt out. The percentage of students who opted out at RBHS was significantly higher than the percentage who opted out at HHS. Because of this, RBHS Literacy Seminar teacher Daryl Moss suggested another, more-human reason for this discrepancy.

“I think that [Literacy Seminar is] stigmatized [at Rock Bridge],” Moss said. “I think there’s definitely a negative view of the Lit Sem course. I’ve heard some terrible comments about, ‘Oh, that’s the dumb kid class.’ And that breaks my heart. That is not at all what this class is for. Specifically at Hickman, there are six or seven different sections of reading instruction, and many students, both struggling readers as well as competent readers, take the class. And I haven’t quite figured it out, but there’s some type of negative assumption at Rock Bridge for this class, and I don’t know how to get rid of it, and I wish that I could.”

Conversely, at HHS, the overwhelmingly stigmatized view of the Literacy Seminar class doesn’t have much of a presence, Hickman Literacy Seminar teacher Kim Acopolis said.

“I don’t think there is any more stigma for the students in these classes than a regular English class,” Acopolis said. “We have students in Literary Seminar who are also in AP classes. If you ask kids at Hickman what classes have a stigma, Literary Seminar is generally not one of them that comes up.”

Furthermore, approximately 105 of the recommended 110 students are enrolled in reading instruction classes at HHS. Acopolis said the discrepancy between the two schools concerns her.

“If it was my child, I would want to know that she was reading below grade level, so that if the school didn’t find it important enough to provide her with the extra instruction she needed to be successful, I could step in and seek options for appropriate reading instruction,” Acopolis said. “The discrepancy between the two schools raises a number of questions that I hope the patrons of the district ask the leaders of CPS.”

Mast, a first-year principal, said she wasn’t a large part of the FTE decision-making process for this year but has been learning more within the last month about the discrepancy and the number of students who qualify for the service that RBHS isn’t offering it for.

“It’s basically something that we’ll be looking into this year to try to evaluate better for the future,” Mast said. “Is there another way we can offer a service to those students? Does it have to be a reading intervention class?”

Kremer, though he doesn’t know the detailed logistics of the number of Literacy Seminar courses Rock Bridge offers, or the lack thereof, agrees with Mast on the need to bridge the discrepancy. He believes there are two crucial goals of the reading instruction classes. The first is to make those strategies that are now subconscious for strong readers, conscious to the ones who aren’t as strong and let them practice those strategies so they begin to be ingrained. The second function of the literacy seminar class is simply to build in time to read because, Kremer said, just like sports or music or theater, the only way to get better at anything is to practice it and have time to practice it.

“Literacy is such an important part of what you’re doing in all of your courses, really, especially as we get more and more ready for college,” Kremer said. “And so that’s part of why we take it so seriously, because we know that if you don’t get that literacy support before you leave us, you may never get it.”

Moss, a third-year teacher of Literacy Seminar at RBHS, said that though she also doesn’t entirely understand why the school wasn’t able to offer more sections of Literacy Seminar this year, she would certainly be willing to teach additional sections of the course. She believes wholeheartedly in the importance of the Literacy Seminar class to the students who need it.

“I’ve certainly seen students that have come in here that say, ‘I hate reading, I don’t want to read, I don’t have time to read, there’s no way you’re going to get me to read a book,’ that sort of thing,” Moss said. “I feel most most successful as a teacher when, by mid-year, I look at that same student, and they’re actually reading a book, but not just reading a book; they’re talking about what they’re reading, and they want to share what they’re reading. I think that, to me, is more demonstrative of success than anything else.”

By Urmilla Kutikkad