Struggling Readers Jump Grade Levels in East Chicago District

BY: Tanya Roscorla |

Two years ago, the School City of East Chicago was failing.

Only a third of its 5,684 students passed Indiana's reading and math tests. Just over half of high school students graduated from the urban district.

“We had tried every intervention, every strategy, everything known to man,” said Lynda Jagadich, the district curriculum and instructional coach. "We’d get it right with one or two groups, but then we kind of lost out at the secondary level.”

Most of the schools were on probation. And within a year, the state could have taken some of them over. 

The biggest challenge was changing the culture to one where students and the community valued education. 

“When schools are repeatedly failing — schools are constantly on the probation list or near the take-over list — there’s little hope," said Mike Harding, who became superintendent of the district in August 2009. "And when there’s no hope for kids, they give up.”

The district needed a culture change.


Harding came into the district with a vision. He showed students and the community why education is so important. And he brought together community leaders to come up with a plan.

Thirty-five people in the community who weren't educators developed a long-range strategic plan for the district. They created a new mission, vision, objectives, parameters and strategies.

And with the support of the community and the district, School City of East Chicago started improving.

Through individualized learning software, students strengthened their cognitive and reading skills.

Through extended school days and computers, students had the time and technology they needed to learn.

And through professional learning communities, teachers worked together to evaluate how students were doing and adapted instruction to meet their needs.

These changes created an environment where students could learn and teachers could teach. And as a result, struggling readers have jumped grade levels.

The software

By talking with superintendents in similar urban districts, Harding learned that the Fast ForWord software from Scientific Learning helped strengthen their students' cognitive skills. Their memory, attention and processing rates improved, and as a result, so did their reading.

The other superintendents also told him that combining this software with Scholastic READ 180 exponentially doubled their students' chance of success. Through the adaptive technology of this software, struggling readers move at their own pace and focus on areas they're having trouble with.

In September 2009, the district committed to using READ 180 in fifth through 12th grade as well as Fast ForWord in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Then the training began.

Along with the board members, administrators and teachers, the district invited community leaders and parents to go through the software training. That way, they could understand what the students would learn.

On three different nights, about 150 community leaders decided to undergo training. And at elementary schools, parents came for training as well.

“Here our commitment is that all kids will learn, and really the difference is the commitment that you put into it," Harding said. "And the commitment has to come from everyone.”

Along with these two programs, teachers used diagnostic blueprints for Indiana's online Acuity assessments. These blueprints helped teachers prepare students for the tests and recognize which concepts they needed to reteach. Based on their scores, the assessments provide instructional resources and individual student learning paths.

The computers

Along with the software, the district ordered about 800 new computers. In the schools, technology staff members rewired, reconfigured and remodeled classrooms and labs.

For East Chicago Central High School, the administration signed an agreement with Apple to provide MacBook Pros to each student. These laptops provide students direct access to digital curriculum programs at home and at school.

Through the laptops, they're learning more about technology. And beyond that, "It's leading to ... the idea that it'll affect curriculum and what we teach and how we teach it," said Jim Novosel, a data coach. A number of the schools added data and reading coaches to work with groups of students.

The extended day

East Chicago Central High School

In addition to the new computers, the high school added an extra period to the day. In that period, students who need cognitive and reading interventions go to a lab to work on their skills in the software programs. If they need help, they ask trained lab proctors.

But as the high school transitioned to the new program in March 2010, the first challenge became getting students to understand the importance of improving their reading in the long-term, said Lydia Jagger, the Early College instructional leader. The high school has a freshman campus, and it's other campus has two small learning groups: Early College and Middle College.

In general, the students don't see how important reading is. But at the same time, they've told their English teachers that the lab time has helped.

These students do lose two or three electives out of their schedule.

"Right now we're focused on increasing the education that our kids are getting, so that's just a sacrifice," Jagger said. "And we have had the resistance, but overall I think we're benefiting from it."

Students think that the school day is too long, said Claudia Drayton, Middle College instructional leader. But without an extended day, many of them wouldn't be able to have electives.

If they apply themselves, they can test out of the interventions and take electives instead. And this year, some of them have done so.

"We were glad to put them in there because that meant that they had mastered the skills in Fast ForWord and 180, and they were able to come out, which is what we want to do." 

Elementary and middle schools

In a few of the elementary schools, students also spent a period working on their individualized learning programs, and some added Saturday school. The other elementary schools and the middle school stayed on the same schedule.

That meant teachers had to take time away from other subjects to work on the interventions.

At first, the teachers at Block Middle School were a little resistant, said Claudia Zicas, who worked there last year before becoming a curriculum and instructional coach at the high school this year.

But as they gathered information from students' work in Fast ForWord, they realized why students were struggling and were able to help them.

"So resistance led to the teachers becoming cooperative and finding out different changes they could make within their classroom based upon what they saw happening in that lab," Zicas said.

This year, the district did extend the middle school day.

At Carrie Gosch Elementary School, the staff members were excited to transition to a new schedule and individualized instruction, said Ann Kelly, a reading coach. As they went along, they listened to feedback on what was working and how they could improve.

The principal last year, Nancy Sharp, empowered teachers, trusted their ideas and solutions, and asked how she could help during the transition. And they worked together to solve problems.

"We're very fortunate in that many of us have worked for many years together," Kelly said, "and so we all have a working relationship where we understand when things get tough, it's just like, 'I'm sorry, this is what we're going to have to do,' and everyone comes together. We really are like a family."

At the other elementary schools, teachers would feel better about devoting an hour a day to the computer lab if they could have a longer school day next year, Jagadich said. They're frustrated because they don't have time to do everything they want to in each subject.

“There was a little grumbling and mumbling, but by gosh, they were troopers," Jagadich said. "They all got behind us.”

The professional learning communities

In addition to the professional development that both software companies provided, staff members at each school joined small interdisciplinary teams. They look at student data. And based on what they see, they plan, discuss and collaborate on what's working and what needs to change.

While Carrie Gosch Elementary staff members had used data to drive instruction before, now they have more time to work with children in small groups, Kelly said.

At East Chicago Central High School, Zicas and Novosel work together to share data and instructional strategies with teachers.

"It's much better that way with a small group of four or five rather than in front of a faculty meeting where the teachers are tired and they don't really care about hearing about data or instruction anymore," Zicas said.

Because of all the professional development, teachers have committed to the changes in instruction this year, Drayton said. Last year, the high school didn't add the software interventions until March. And they weren't implemented as well as they could have been. The students who needed intervention weren't always identified. And if they were, they didn't show up, Jagger said.

Now the teachers feel like they can do the program the way it's designed, Drayton said.

The results

All of these changes — the new software, computers, extended days and professional learning communities — helped students improve their cognitive and reading skills. Even their math scores improved.

“There’s no one quick fix," Jagadich said. "It’s always a combination of best practices, and we’re just very fortunate that we had someone to come in with the vision to introduce us to these things, ’cause we were ready for it.”

Two schools named most improved in the state

As a result of this combination of strategies and programs, students jumped grade levels in reading. After two weeks, some students went up a grade or two. 

And because their brain processing and reading skills improved, so did their scores on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus. In the 2009-2010 school year, two of the three most improved schools in the state came from the School City of East Chicago.

In English/language arts, 73.79 percent of Carrie Gosch Elementary School students were proficient in 2010. That's a 27.3 percent increase from the previous year. And in math, they showed similar gains, moving from 41.08 percent to 68.93 percent.

Block Middle School students improved by 22.48 percent in English Language Arts, going from 29.15 percent proficiency to 51.63 percent. In math, they moved from 31.16 percent to 43.62 percent. 

“If you go up 2 or 3 percentage points a year you think you’re doing pretty good," Harding said, "but that completely blew people off the charts.”

Three schools make annual yearly progress for the first time

In the district's history, no school had every met annual yearly progress requirements. But last year, three out of eight did. Carrie Gosch, Block Middle and Washington Elementary earned that honor. And one other school missed the mark by a point.

Washington Elementary moved from 75.36 percent proficiency to 83.89 percent in English/language arts. And in math, students went down slightly from 84.06 percent to 82.55 percent.

At Carrie Gosch, much of the school's improvement has to do with extending the school day by an hour, Kelly said. The school also had paraprofessional instructional aides who worked with teachers and students in small groups.

At Block Middle, the combination of Fast ForWord, READ 180 and Acuity had the most impact, said Novosel, who worked at the school last year. The teachers also made a strong commitment to data-driven instruction, Zicas said.

And it showed.

First, she saw a change in the way teachers planned their classes. Then she saw a change in the students.

"A lot of the initiatives we had last year at Block and the reason we saw our progress was due to the fact that teachers used data to drive instruction within the classroom."

East Chicago Central High steps up efforts

With a new leadership team at East Chicago Central High School this year, the district is trying to give students a jumpstart in learning.

The school has been on probation for five years. But this year, students have seen significant gains in both reading programs, Novosel said.

After 22 to 25 weeks of doing READ 180 this year, students improved by an average of 104 lexile points per person. According to the software, normal growth is 75 to 100 points a year. And in Fast ForWord, a number of students have gained more than one grade level in reading.

Schools can improve

Over the past two years, School City of East Chicago has gone through major challenges as it's tried to help students learn.

Creating an educational focus for the entire community has been a tough challenge, Harding said. And in a region with 30 districts next to each other, political issues going on can distract you from your efforts. But that's not what happened in this district.

“We’re all trying to do the very best we can with what we’ve had, and we’ve just had great success in a short time because I think an environment’s been created where teachers can teach, students can learn, and schools can improve,” Harding said.

The superintendent thinks big and doesn't take no for an answer, Jagadich said. And while his ideas weren't always welcomed enthusiastically, the district has embraced them and is reaping the rewards.

“There were many times during the last two years that he’s told me what he wanted to do, and I’d look at him and say, 'You’re crazy. You are crazy.' And I’m eating my words now.”

The district's high population of English-language learners have seen tremendous growth. And some of the most neurologically impaired students whose parents had abused drugs or drank alcohol while their children were developing have grown as well, Jagadich said.

In the buildings where these children learned, they reaped the biggest rewards from the brain exercise software. About 25 percent of district students have special needs. The district focuses on providing for every child at their level and taking them as far as they can go.

Next year, the district hopes that only half of ninth and tenth graders will need the interventions after doing them for the past two years.

"We've come a long way, and we feel pretty good about that," Harding said. "But we have a long way yet to go."


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