Northwest NEWS

August 19, 2002

Features

Students build reading skills through NSD's Literacy Link

by Jeanette Knutson
   Staff Writer
   While 250 students attended Northshore School District's four-week elementary/junior high Summer Academy for enrichment and skill-building purposes, another 350 district students attended the district's six-week three-hour-a-day Literacy Link program to help them become better readers.
   Funded with money from Initiative 728 and offered to families free of charge, Literacy Link was designed specifically for students exiting grades 3, 5, 6, and 9.
   Three of the four grades targeted in this program, said Literacy Link Principal Bob Hagin, will encounter the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test during the next school year.
   Aware of the pressure kids feel regarding the WASL test, the district wanted to bolster the confidence of these children by helping them improve their reading skills.
   Attendees were generally students who did not meet district and state standards in the Sunshine Assessment (grade 2), Iowa Test of Basic Skills (grades 3 and 5), WASL (grades 4 and 7), and the Iowa Test of Educational Development (grade 9).
   Said Hagin, "The district supplied a list of names of students it felt would benefit from an intense reading program, and teachers made recommendations as well. Then we sent letters out to parents asking for a six-week commitment, from July 1 through Aug. 14.
   "Some families postponed vacations, others decided not to go on a vacation. It was a tremendous commitment on the part of these families and students.
   " I have a high amount of respect for all of them. What we were asking (the students) to do was to go to school year round. And these were (kids) who, for the most part, struggled in the regular school year; and here we were, asking them to come back for more," said Hagin.
   Hagin calls Literacy Link "the brainchild" of Director of Instructional Support for the Northshore School District Diane Baerwald. She, in turn, credits a number of reading specialists and others for their input as well.
   "We asked ourselves," said Baerwald, "what would we do if we had three hours a day, five days a week, for six weeks to focus on a single subject, reading."
   The "think tank" came up with six reading strategies they wanted to teach the students. Each grade level worked on one reading strategy a week. For example, one week they concentrated on creating connections, building bridges from the "new" to the "known." Another week they worked on questioning or visualizing or making inferences, on synthesizing information, on reflecting and communicating thoughts verbally or in writing.
   "All of these are critical reading skills which many adult readers do naturally," said Hagin.
   "It's very intense" he said. "The engagement level is very high. As I walked through the classrooms, I thought, 'Wow, here we are in week five and everyone is still striving to be successful.' I don't want to sound 'schmaltzy,' but magic really did happen in the classrooms. There was an energy amongst the staff and students.
   "I have no doubt we will see a correlation to these students' academic careers ... and how they feel about themselves. It's been exciting to follow, to watch it evolve," said Hagin.
   Said Baerwald, "We had the time, we had small class sizes (10 students per class), we designed the curriculum to meet the students' needs. It was a new curriculum, not one they've seen or used before. I believe we'll see reading score gains, more confident readers, students telling themselves, 'I am a reader, I have something to offer to a conversation.'"
   Kirby Larson, former Northshore school board member and accomplished children's book author, spent two days of the program with students in grades 3 and 5.
   "I have a standard presentation that I give at schools to explain how I come up with my characters and story lines," said Larson.
   "Students create paper bag characters, and by the time they go through all the steps (of my presentation), they find themselves with a character and a story line.
   "The kids were wonderful. There was lots of good energy in the workshop. It was very interactive; the kids asked a lot of good questions. It was a good time. We have a great group of kids here ... but I always knew that," said Larson.