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Middle school literacy scores climbing

Photo of students in small group

While educators typically pore over testing data looking for areas for improvement, it’s also beneficial to celebrate the successes and identify areas of growth to learn what is working.

Based on Illinois School Report Card data released in late October, one of the positive highlights for Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 is in literacy, and particularly among middle school students.

Creekside and Northwood sixth-graders and eighth-graders scored higher on Illinois Assessment and Readiness tests than their peers in Huntley, Crystal Lake, Cary, McHenry and many other McHenry County schools. The average of Woodstock sixth-grade school students who met or exceeded expectations was 44.9 percent while the average among eighth-grade students was 49.2.

“The skills learned in the literacy curriculum are critical for student success in all subject areas, and these results validate the hard work of our students, teachers, literacy coach, and administrators. Generating positive results is possible when everyone works together, and students find value in what they are learning,” said Justin Smith, assistant superintendent of middle & high school education.

District 200 middle school literacy scores on the whole are among the highest in the area, particularly when compared with school districts of similar student demographic populations.

Courtney Heeren, literacy coach at both Creekside and Northwood middle schools, said teachers are pleased with the success. She credits the growth to their efforts as well as strategy changes made over recent years.

“Teachers know how hard they’ve been working. I think literacy teachers feel a lot of pressure because it’s one of the things that’s measured by high-stakes testing,” Heeren said. “With the scores as high as they are now, teachers have celebrated that and have enjoyed that their hard work is really coming to light.”

Some of the changes include curriculum and materials as well as incorporating a literacy block in middle schools. In the past, literature and language arts were taught separately by two separate teachers. With block scheduling, students have the same teacher for both classes so there is less chance of a disconnect between different teaching styles and content.

Relationships are also easier to build because of the increased instruction time with one teacher, which Heeren said can be particularly important with adolescent learners who become more particular about what they like to read as they begin forming their independence.

“We’re really integrating our reading, writing, speaking and listening so that it becomes more of a cohesive whole in terms of instruction,” Hereen said.“‘Reading is the breathing in; writing is the breathing out,’ is a quote from educator Pam Allyn that we always repeat.”

Hereen said teachers and administrators were initially somewhat nervous about the rigors of the new literacy curriculum. “But we quickly found that once we had the expectation that all of our students could learn and achieve at a level where they could demonstrate mastery and understanding, and once we had those high expectations, we saw a lot of kids rising to it.”

Literacy teachers also meet weekly in professional learning communities where they discuss data, assessments and proactive strategies with a focus on skills and standards.

The emphasis on literacy goes back to kindergarten and elementary schools, which have their own approaches and extra programs such as Everyone Reads to boost students who aren’t quite reading at grade level.

“Literacy is really the great equalizer. Once students know how to not only read but also write in a way where they can express themselves, it opens doors for everything —  not only in a school setting but as a member of society. As a whole, that’s been our big picture as well: To create literate citizens who can function in a world where so much of what we do today is consuming reading and writing,” Hereen said.

Photo of student working on literacy