HOULTON, Maine — Last year, both the community and the SAD 29 board rejected a label from the state Department of Education naming Houlton Junior-Senior High School one of 10 “persistently lowest-achieving schools” in the state. At the same time, board members agreed that the district could “do better” in terms of educating students.
Signs of improvement were evident earlier this week, when district educators presented the results of using nearly $1 million from a Reading First grant to increase literacy in its elementary schools. Results showed that the grant helped students significantly improve their reading skills.
SAD 29 consists of the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello.
The DOE used federal criteria to produce the list of low-achieving schools, namely low levels of achievement in math and reading over a three-year period, coupled with a low level of improvement. Local educators said during Monday’s board meeting that they now have the tools to shape better readers early in life, so that students do not struggle later.
“We don’t often see these results,” Candace Crane, principal of Houlton Elementary School, said Monday. “It is a real testament to the teachers, the parents and our literacy staff that we have been able to do what we have.”
The district received what originally was a three-year, $835,040 grant in June 2006.
“Our goal at the end of the grant cycle was to have 85 percent of the students demonstrating reading proficiency that was at or above grade level by the time they reached third grade,” Crane said. “It was a lofty goal.”
The funding was used to improve reading skills among its elementary school pupils, purchase books and educational materials and assist teachers in finding new ways to enhance literacy. The district also used a portion of the award to hire a a literary intervention specialist and literacy coaches.
Based on the gains made, the district secured an additional two years of grant funding, bringing nearly $1 million into its schools. Some of that funding was used to purchase supplemental reading materials that had proved successful in other schools, and also to fund more teacher training.
To achieve their goal, literacy coaches and the intervention specialist spent time at Houlton Elementary School and at Wellington School in Monticello. The coaches worked closely with classroom teachers and tag-teamed with the specialist to provide direct help to struggling readers. They also worked with parents to show them how to encourage reading at home. Teachers also used Palm Pilots and Smart Boards while working with students to teach them even more.
“Before we got the grant, our reading practices were inconsistent,” Sally Cole, the intervention specialist, told the board. “Our teaching now is based on individual data and student progress. Teachers meet and discuss how to help individual students. Professional development also has really broadened teacher education. Now, the kids who need more detailed intervention get it.”
In the past, she added, elementary students were not exposed to literacy best practices consistently, which now has changed.
The grant also helped purchase more books for classroom libraries and equipment to make reading more exciting and hands-on. Students, for example, now can read into speaker phones and play it back so they can hear how they are doing. Palm pilots and other equipment print out graphs showing reading skills and improvement levels for each individual student.
Crane told the board that testing in 2006 showed that only 52 percent of the students in the grades targeted were reading at grade level. Tests conducted in January showed that 85 percent of students were reading at grade level and 85 percent were at grade level for reading comprehension.
“So we met our goal,” Crane said, a remark that drew applause from the crowd.
Parents of children who benefited from the grant praised the changes they have seen in them.
Leslie Ross of Houlton said that her son, Michael, was in first grade when he started receiving literacy support.
“He told me that his goal was to learn to read so that he could go to the library,” she said during the meeting. “By the end of first grade, he asked for money for his birthday so that he could go to Borders and buy books. He now loves to read. This has opened up a whole new world for him.”
Julie Tribou, who also lives in Houlton, said that her son, Logan, too, struggled with reading when he was in the second grade. At the time, she said, tests showed that he was reading at a level normally seen in a child entering first grade.
“I can’t say enough about how valuable this has been for him,” she said. “By the end of second grade, he was reading at grade level. He loves to read. Reading is the key to life. If you can’t read well, you struggle.”
Not only did teachers see results from their students, the state DOE also recognized the district for its work. Crane said that SAD 29 received the highest score on state progress reports, and that the DOE has recommended that other schools visit Houlton Elementary School and Wellington to see their literacy programs up close.
“We know now what we have to do, and we have the tools to do it,” Crane told the board. “We expect to continue to see high results.”