When the teachers and administrators began The Literacy First Process at Palomino II in Phoenix, Arizona, it was one school, grades K-6, with a total enrollment of 1,201. Their attendance rate was over 95%, mobility rate was 85%, and the free and reduced lunch rate was 85%. In 2002-2003, the demographics were 76% second language learners, 5% Special Education, 4% Honors services, 10% Caucasian, 3% African American and 85% Hispanic with two hundred students suspended each year.
The 2002-2003 school year was Palomino IIs last year as one school. In the 2003-2004 year we were separated into two smaller schools, a primary school and Palomino II, an intermediate school for students in grades 4, 5, and 6. In the first year, before the split, 80% of Caucasian students at fifth grade met or exceeded the state standards on the Arizona AIMS reading test and 19.1% of our 73 Hispanic students could do the same. 70% of Hispanic students fell far below the standard. Only a little over 10% of our ELL students could meet the standard, and over 81% fell far below. Our school results in reading on Arizonas Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) was 16% meeting and exceeding grade level expectations. Our results for the same students on the Stanford 9 Achievement Tests were similar. Our fifth grade was in the 3rd stanine, the 16th percentile nationally.
During the same year, the districts most successful school in reading had 91% meeting and exceeding, 9% approaching and no children who were in the Falls Far Below category. Not only was Palomino II the lowest of the 29 elementary schools, but the next lowest was almost 30% higher. Only 5 district schools had less than 60% of their students meeting and exceeding state standards.
The 2003-2004 school year didnt produce much change in test scores. The one bright spot was writing. It went up to 32%, and we hoped the research we had read was correct when it showed that writing scores precede reading scores. However we knew we were changing internally. That second year we saw changes in the classrooms, but they were structural, not substantive. The look and feel of reading classes began to be different, and teachers began to really look at data and their students as works-in-progress. We had several staff members who were really resistant to the changes we were making (Intermediate teachers dont do centers!), but the leadership team remained true to the new directions and firm in their commitment to changing the status of our students. Those resistant staff members left, by their own choosing, and new teachers were brought in who knew from the beginning that they were joining an ongoing process. They needed to take time for training and become proficient in this process as quickly as possible.
During the 2004-2005 year, we could feel the changes all year long. The sense of urgency was powerful. We were racing. We saw the substance of the classrooms deepen. Learning centers became engaging, compelling. Students were almost clocking their own progress on fluency and on phonics because they knew where they stood relative to grade level work. They became working partners in moving to where they needed to be.
As we felt the momentum gathering, our school goals became clear and simple. We knew for the second year our goal had to be that every student should be on grade level in reading, writing and math by the end of sixth grade. Everything else served that one purpose. We also knew that we could do it, or come very close. We felt our obligation to our students success was in our hands and we knew we wouldnt let them down. This was a shift in expectations for both students and teachers.
The staff was beginning to coalesce around the notion that we could actually accelerate learning for all our students. We became a unified faculty around our school goals, and it was powerful. The more we learned, the more success we saw. The more success we saw in our students, the more success we felt in ourselves. The more we knew, the more competent we felt. The more competent we felt, the more competent we became. Teachers began asking about other curriculum areas to reflect the structure and substance we had in our reading program with the Literacy First Process. We began to design processes that reflected that school-wide movement.
We tracked our ongoing progress with data collections. We pored over them as a staff and as grade levels. We carefully moved children, adjusting their instructional groups to assure that each student made the greatest progress possible while remaining successful.
It all made a difference. In 2004-2005 we talked about our wish for a 5% increase in our scores. We had made AYP the previous year, and we wanted it again. We silently hoped for a 10% increase. Our actual reading scores were 33% of fourth graders, 31% of fifth and sixth graders meeting and exceeding the state standards, more than doubling our percentages in one year. By one measure, our reading increase was 21%, by another a mere 16%. And most exciting of all, less than 30% of all students fell far below. We are suddenly looking at this wonderful group of students, 40% of whom are now in the Approaching Grade Level category! Examination of their scores shows us that they are poised to jump up again next year, giving us hope that we could see 40 to 50% of all students meeting and exceeding grade level achievement.
Our families are more stable. The parents are beginning to come in and take pride in our successes and participate in the school. We have displayed our results prominently in our public places, as well as the work of their children. We have trumpeted their childrens progress everywhere we could find an audience. They are hearing us. They are working to become partners in this process with us, giving us support in parenting where they often cant give it academically. Teachers no longer teach with the classroom door closed. Now teachers share resources, ideas, talk about kids, problem solve together and speak the same language when it comes to reading education. No one is isolated. Teachers ask to go visit one anothers classrooms to see what others are doing to incorporate new ideas they pick up from their peers.
We know we have a long way to go. But we also know that we have a good map to get us there. We feel that the success we are building is attributable to a few key elements. First is having the framework of the Literacy First Process with its emphasis on training, mentoring and guidance, and staying true to that framework. Second is generally staying on message. Our principal, Manny Ramirez, makes every decision an academic one: does it keep us on track or does it take us off course? Third is building a leadership team that can work together to support and guide both teachers and students. The fourth key is the staff itself. Being surrounded by dedicated people who share a commitment to excellence is critical to maintaining the energy required to do our job- seeing every single child succeed and grow.
Mary McIntyre- Title Programs Coordinator
Manny Ramirez- Principal
Teri Berman- Learning Resource Teacher
Paradise Valley Unified School District
15002 N. 32nd Street
Phoenix, AZ 85032