Reading has taken on increased status as the primary education strategy in recent years. Now reading has become the critical tool in special education. Monett R-1 School District Special Education Director Elaine O'Neal explained the new approach for members of the Monett R-1 Board of Education at the group October meeting.
Following the widespread use of the grant-funded Reading First program, school districts saw new gains in test scores and student learning. As money for Reading First ran out, districts sought alternatives. Monett chose the Reading Street program developed by the Scott Foresman publishing company as the supplement for kindergarten to fourth grade classes.
A more intense complementary program, My Sidewalks on Main Street, provided a complementary intensive reading intervention strategy for young students struggling with reading skills.
"I'm not sure why we weren't focused more on reading in special education," O'Neal said. "Perhaps there weren't good research-based programs showing dramatic improvement."
Special education keeps students with individual education programs (IEPs) in mainstream classes if possible. Currently, the Monett School District has 246 students with IEPs. Students get pulled out of regular classes for specialized instruction where they have difficulty.
O'Neal told the school board the curriculum for students with IEPs has aligned with subject matter mainstream students study from grade to grade. The strategy uses intense instruction to help students keep up. New intensive interventions for reading and writing have been introduced.
Scores on standardized state tests taken by students with IEPs showed Monett students met performance targets set by the state. The 11 students with the most severe disabilities took a different test, more indicative of their skills. Scores exceeded state averages in all areas assessed. O'Neal called the achievement "phenomenal."
Reading remains a key to this achievement. For reading instruction past fourth grade, the district introduced two new programs: Read 180 and System 44, both developed by the Scholastic company. Read 180 is used in 50 states in over 15,000 classrooms, usually for the general student population when reading difficulties surface.
The programs use a 90-minute block of time where possible for reading instruction in a group lesson, then switching to small groups. Specific instruction, sometimes as much as 30 to 45 minutes per day, includes having students listening to a book on compact disc players then taking tests on the computer. The software has structured tests in different types: the reading zone, the word zone, the spelling zone and the success zone.
Students must pace themselves and show mastery of specific skills before they are allowed to advance. Subject matter is geared to be highly interesting to the students.
Some students, O'Neal said, struggle with reading, because they lack skills in phonics to grasp the sound of words. System 44 specifically targets the phonics shortcoming. The district purchased System 44 to build student skills to where they can move into Read 180 with greater success.
O'Neal has six special education teachers in fifth grade through high school. Co-teaching with the regular teachers has been introduced to augment reading skills. One teacher, Blair Powell, works exclusively with System 44 at the high school level.
Powell brought several of his students to the board meeting. One said he had recently finished reading his first novel.
"It's exciting seeing kids wanting to read and enjoying it, a lot for the first time," O'Neal said. "We're seeing improvement at 12 weeks in test scores."
In addition to the tests given in the Read 180 and System 44 programs, teachers give students tests to show benchmark achievement three times a year. The benchmark tests assess reading abilities.
"Our ultimate hope is for students to be more successful in all their classes and after graduation because they have better reading skills," O'Neal said.
When O'Neal started as special services director last year, teachers told her reading, technology and staffing were the biggest needs. With federal stimulus money available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), O'Neal concentrated on technology-based programs like Read 180 that are showing success. She said the district bought licensing with the programs, so the instruction strategy can stay in Monett for years to come.
Teachers working with technology instructor Melody Paige have received added instruction on how to use SmartBoards and laptops in interactive lessons. O'Neal said the added training for teachers was a big job that is showing satisfying results. To keep the effort on track, a professional coach is coming to the district 10 times during the year to teach fine points and help the faculty run reports on student achievement.
Monett is also one of 13 school districts participating in the Ozarks Education Research Institute, which gets assistance from Missouri State University. With superintendents particularly concerned about achievement in the student population with IEPs, all 13 districts chose to target reading and communication arts for these students.
"We're raising our expectations," O'Neal said. "With our success, we're seeing there are things we could be doing."