Norris Elementary School making improvements in K-3 literacy

By Corey AmEnde - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Thu., Jun. 6, 2013
Sandi Smith (standing) provides reading instruction to students at Anna E. Norris Elementary School on Remington Road. (L-r) DiAndrae, Presca, Josue and Joel.
Sandi Smith (standing) provides reading instruction to students at Anna E. Norris Elementary School on Remington Road. (L-r) DiAndrae, Presca, Josue and Joel.

Reading, writing and arithmetic - sometimes winkingly known as "the three Rs" - are the fundamentals to every child’s education. But with literacy a major concern across the state and the country, educators are continually looking for ways to improve reading aptitude in students.

“We have a saying,” explained East Hartford Superintendent of Schools Nathan Quesnel. “We say up to grade three you learn how to read, after grade three you read to learn. But you’re never going to read to learn if you don’t know how to read,” added Quesnel.     

One of the methods that educators in the state are using to try to close the achievement gap is the Connecticut Kindergarten-Grade 3 Literacy Initiative (CK-3LI). This is a pilot program managed by the University of Connecticut that has been implemented in five schools across the state.

“It is a highly-structured, highly-predictable program to deliver specific targeted instruction,” explained Dr. Edward R. Orszulak, principal at Anna E. Norris Elementary School on Remington Road, one of the five schools in Connecticut chosen to participate in CK-3LI.

“The CK-3LI is a huge opportunity for our district,” said Quesnel, who credits the work of state Rep. Jason Rojas and the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus for bringing the program to East Hartford. Funded by a grant, this program was implemented by the middle of October at Norris Elementary for students in kindergarten through the third grade.  Each student in K-3 was tested to determine who would be a good fit for the program. Approximately 80 students at Norris Elementary are currently enrolled in the program.

The students receive specialized, targeted and focused instructions five days a week. Four reading specialists and a reading coach provide instructions in a classroom that is dedicated to this program. The classroom is divided into four stations, each containing all the materials and supplies that the instructor needs for each lesson.

The reading specialists – or “interventionalists,” as they are called – meet with six to seven groups a day for 30 minutes each session.  Each group consists of three to four students.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for our kids to get specialized instruction by experts,” said Orszulak. “The goal is not just to provide targeted instructions by these experts, but to also provide instruction in the classroom, provide professional development and training for our classroom teachers and provide ongoing support for the kids,” he said. 

The students also receive the standard reading curriculum when they return to their classroom. Three levels of manuals are used for the students in the CK-3LI program, with each manual consisting of about 85 lessons. Each group covers one lesson a day. Each lesson is very structured and has similar components to it.

The small groups of three to four students are encouraged to answer in unison. “That way everyone is participating and engaged,” said CK-3LI literacy coach Katherine Kuckens. “Also, the teacher can see who has the answer and who doesn’t, without one just copying the other.”

Kuckens explained that each lesson can contain seven or eight activities, with the interventionalist keeping track of the activities on a lesson mastery sheet. “The students enjoy watching these checks go in,” said Kuckens.

The interventionalists keep the students engaged through the lessons, commending them when they have completed an activity.
In addition to the daily monitoring of students, the instructors also conduct progress monitoring every two weeks and administer benchmark tests in the fall, winter and spring.  

Every two weeks each interventionalist will plot the progress of each child on a graph. If a student’s chart does not show an upward trend, the staff will have a meeting to determine what adjustments to make. Although the program is still relatively new, Orszulak is pleased with the early returns.

“Right now the data we’re getting back is very encouraging,” he said. “We’re seeing terrific growth with the kids, and the expectation is that it will continue.” And the early feedback also shows that the program doesn’t just have a positive effect on student literacy, but also on the overall learning process.

“You help teach them the patterns, habits, routines of good scholarship,” said Orszulak. “There’s a social behavior, there’s academic behavior, there’s organizational behavior; and all of those three components are taught on a regular basis by everybody.”

This holistic approach helps reinforce the theme of PBIS – positive behavior intervention support – to which Norris school adheres. PBIS ties directly into the school's motto of positive, polite and productive. “It’s something that they use and know throughout the day,” said Kuckens.

“We have had some discussions with the state department regarding funding and continuing the process of CK-3LI for next year and also looking to possibly bring it to a larger scale,” said Quesnel.

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