A Modern Day Literacy Miracle is Born In West Denver by Kathryn Harris, Generation Schools Network Sr Associate for Development
I recently heard a teacher at West Generation Academy, an Innovation School in Denver Public Schools, say, “If students can do these four things, they can get a good paying job in today’s economy. The things are reading, writing, presenting, and listening.” From what I’ve seen so far, our students coming from one of Denver’s most socioeconomically challenged communities are well on their way to success.
Something amazing has happened in the two short years since West Generation Academy opened as a turnaround replacement school for West High School. After a unanimous vote by the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education in 2011, the school opened in Fall 2012 with 350 students in grades 6, 8, and 9.
The school staff was saddened when they received the fall benchmark testing results shortly after opening. The data indicated that 80% of the student body was 5 or more years behind in reading. That meant the odds were definitely stacked against a student body made up of 60% English Language Learners, 99% minorities and 100% free and reduced lunch qualified students.
Sobered, but undaunted, the school partnered with The Carmel Hill Fund to train teachers, acquire high interest literature and implement technology banks and skillware to measure student comprehension. In addition to the skillware provided by Carmel Hill, teachers also integrated Reading Plus and Newsela. After two years of hard work, West Generation Academy supported by Generation Schools Network and Carmel Hill have built a culture of literacy.
Dr. Robert E. Slavin, Johns Hopkins professor and Director of Center for Research and Reform in Education, has authored a number of studies on the most effective programs and techniques for developing and sustaining literacy among students of various age groups and skill levels. His findings repeatedly point to several elements that are most critical to success, particularly among students who struggle with reading: extensive high-level professional development for teachers, cooperative instruction and learning practices, transforming schedules and teacher practices to be responsive to the needs of students, and longer class periods with varied or rotational teaching modalities.1 Linda Diamond of the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE) highlights many of these, and adds the need for responsive technology that supplements teacher instruction and provides structured feedback for student and teacher. The CORE report also underscores the importance of strong support from school leadership in order for a program to be effective.2 The approach to literacy at West Generation Academy integrates all of these vital elements, with remarkable results.
“It’s been amazing for me to see the impact of our work. We have gone from not being able to get students to read to having to ask our students to take a reading break so we can focus on other types of coursework. I am so incredibly proud of them,” stated Amanda Novak, 9th grade Humanities teacher.
According to Jon Reinhard, V.P. of Learning & Teaching for Generation Schools Network, “We are privileged to have played a significant role in this transformation of a DPS school and to have opened up the world to so many students. Reading gives our students access to the world and is something that can never be taken away from them no matter what their circumstance”.
Kelly Austin, Implementation Specialist at Carmel Hill who supports the Accelerated Reader program across multiple schools stated, “West Generation students are showing some of the highest comprehension rates among other middle and high schools in their cohort. Accelerated Reading tests show that on average West Generation students are comprehending at an 83% level. Given how far behind these students started, the growth is amazing.” There are several critical contributors to this progress, says Wendy Loloff Piersee, CEO of Generation Schools Network, “With Generation Schools Network, structures have been adjusted to make daily reading time with the right supports possible, teachers have time to look at data daily and weekly, teachers read alongside their students and students who are behind in reading are receiving daily skillware support during afternoon Studio Courses to catch up to grade level. It’s a winning combination”.
Vice President of the Morgridge Family Foundation, Carrie Morgridge, stands firm in her support of the literacy program at West Generation Academy. “The field knows a lot about building literacy programs for Pre-K and elementary school students. However, there is not much research available on how to foster a culture of literacy for middle school and high schools students. We cannot give up on these students. West Generation Academy is proving that this is indeed possible with passionate and well-trained teachers, engaging and leveled books, and tools available to assess progress, monitor comprehension, and provide remediation as needed to catch students up.”
It is with tremendous excitement and promise that students at West Generation have almost reached their goal of reading 8,000 books this school year. That’s an average of more than 17 books per student. As of May 28, the total number of books read was 7,941. This is 8 times the number of books read in all of last year. To quote one of my favorite authors, “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” - Dr. Seuss, "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!"
To learn more about this modern day literacy miracle, please contact:
VP Learning & Teaching
Generation Schools Network