April 23, 2014 - 18:05
Grant gives BES reading help
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For Benton Elementary School, being named a focus school meant being eligible for grant money to close the gap in reading scores between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students.

While being named as a focus school indicates a problem - gaps in testing and a need for more focused attention for students - it also enables schools to apply for grant money to help that process. For Benton Elementary School, being named a focus school meant being eligible for grant money to close the gap in reading scores between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students.

This year, Benton Elementary has received $200,000 to do just that. If enough progress is made, another $200,00 will come next year to continue the progress.

BES Principal Tracy McAbee said the grant money will enable the school to not only increase test scores, but also create a team of reading specialists who are trained to continue the work of ensuring students are able to read long beyond the duration of the grant. Ten teachers will receive on-site coursework from UTK to become certified as specialists. There are currently no reading specialists in the county.

According to the grant, roughly 50% of the student population at Benton Elementary has basic or below basic reading skills. The school will focus on three areas to change that. Students will be individually assessed, instruction will be given in small groups and “just right” books will be implemented. $32,000 of the grant was spent on “just right” books.

McAbee said “just right” books are those that are leveled so every child will be able to read on their own level. If a student can read on their own level, McAbee said, they will be more likely to have the desire to read. All students in the same grades will read the same content, but leveled books will allow students to absorb the content in the best way for them.

Another change at BES is a parallel block schedule. McAbee said students in kindergarten though second grade have their own science classes and computer labs every day. He said the difference between good students and bad students becomes much greater in the third grade. An interest and science (such as dinosaurs) and computers gives students the desire to want to read and learn more. With the leveled books, they can do so in such a way as to continue to be interested.

Two reading consultants have also been hired as part of the grant project. “They are the gurus of leveled reading,” McAbee said. The specialists come every Thursday – one for grades K-2 and one for grades 3-5. Part of their job will be to train five Benton Elementary School teachers as reading coaches in order to continue their work once the grant is finished.

Ten BES teachers will become official reading specialists after two years of UTK coursework under the supervision of Dr. Richard Allington, a leading literacy author and researcher. Teachers are registering now to take the coursework, which will begin in the spring.

“Nobody is better,” McAbee said. “Dr. Allington said if we were able to get 10 teachers, he would bring the coursework to the school and we already have 10 signed up,” he added. The UTK coursework for teachers to become specialists will be the same as that being done at UTK. The grant enables Benton Elementary School teachers to become experts and be able to help students throughout the school system in years to come.

Another component of the grant will be the implementation of a summer school based on leveled reading. McAbee said transportation and food will be provided, juts as it is during the regular school term.

“We will give the students June off, but come back for a while in July to try to make sure students do not slide back over the summer,” McAbee said. He said the goal is to focus on kindergarten and first graders, but will have others, as well.

“I’m really excited about this,” McAbee said. He said there will be other little components along the way during the grant program, but the overall goal is to make it sustainable.

Progress will have to be made during the first year of grant implementation. If the school is able to show improvement, another $200,000 will come next year. McAbee said he wants to see the teachers and students become equipped to continue improving once the grant is finished, and having the ability to certify teachers as reading specialists will make that possible for years to come.

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