SCHENECTADY -- Hamilton Elementary School first-grader Amyia Valgean, working from a small magnet whiteboard Tuesday morning, spelled out words as her teacher Colleen Miller called them out for the class.
The words were based on sounds formed by common groups of letters – think, link, wink – and the students went through a routine with each word: Say the word. Pronounce each sound of the word. Tap out the sounds of the word. Repeat the word. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
“Because they're my favorite,” Amyia said when asked why she likes building words.
The focus on basic skills and the careful construction of words the first-graders are asked to build serves as the foundation for reading. Each day, students in Miller's class and other early-grade classes across the district are supposed to get at least 90 minutes of literacy instruction built on both class lessons and individualized reading plans. Pulling a book out of her desk, simply titled "Snacks," Amyia skipped ahead to the last page of the book to show off her reading skills.
“Look,” Amyia said, pointing to the final page. “No one is hungry.”
Across the Schenectady City School District, the city's youngest students showed positive signs of growth in reading skills during the first half of the school year, even as progress in the older grades remained stubbornly gradual. And districtwide Schenectady's reading proficiency rates continue to lag other districts. Less than two years ago some school leaders in the district were promising to raise English language arts proficiency scores from the single digits.
Data highlighting the progress among young students was presented to the school board last week as part of the district's second quarterly report of the year on student academics and behavior, serving as a flicker of hope that efforts in recent years to flesh out a systematic literacy program are paying dividends.
“While the data shows we are not exactly where we want to be, everything seems to be trending in the right direction,” said board member Mark Snyder after officials presented the quarterly report. “And I don't remember an academic report recently with so many green smiley faces.”
Students in kindergarten through second grade in all of the district's 11 elementary schools showed literacy growth from the first quarter of the year to the second quarter, according to the academic report. In every school, more students in the earliest grades reached grade-level benchmarks in the second quarter than in the first quarter – even as that grade-level target moved further ahead. The progress was apparent in quarterly tests the district gives students to measure their reading skills at different stages of the school year.
At Keane Elemenetary, which along with Hamilton Elementary made the biggest reading gains among young students in the first half of the year, 40 percent of the young students scored at or near grade-level during the first quarter; in the second quarter, 71 percent of students scored at or near grade level. Hamilton more than doubled its share of students reading at or near grade level from the first to the second quarter this year, according to the quarterly report, rising from 25 percent of students at or near grade level in the first quarter to 57 percent of students at or near grade level in the second quarter.
“Clearly, based on the growth we are seeing we are moving in the right direction,” Aaron Bochniak, district director of planning and accountability, said during the board presentation.
But the older the students get, the slower the progress they appear to be making. The literacy progress made by students in third through fifth grade was more incremental than what the younger students experienced. And at Lincoln Elementary, students in those grades regressed from fall to winter; dropping from 46 percent of students at or near grade level in the first quarter to 36 percent in the second quarter.
The progress made by students at the district middle schools and high school was even more gradual. Mont Pleasant Middle School counted the same share of students reading at or near grade level each of the first two quarters of the school year, while Central Park and Oneida middle schools and Schenectady High School all made small gains in the share of students reading at grade level. Still, fewer than half of the students in all three middle schools and the high school scored as reading at or near grade level in the second quarter of the school year, according to the quarterly report.
“We aren't going to declare victory,” Superintendent Larry Spring said after the meeting last week.
Spring said it is more difficult to help older students fill reading or other academic deficits, which have set in after years of struggles. He said the progress among the youngest students was a positive sign that efforts to create a more systematic literacy program was taking hold and could lead to better results as those students start to move into successive grades. He also said he wasn't going to “read too much into it yet.”
“That's good momentum to push on,” Spring said.