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Brian Stimson of The Skanner
Published: 08 October 2008

Principal Jamila Williams, and Reading Coach Mary Peake

Five years ago, several Portland elementary schools embarked on a new teaching method. The Oregon Reading First grant program used scientifically-based reading research to improve literacy skills on students as early as pre-K. Teachers shared more students and were more involved in each students' success; training programs helped teachers with their own teaching skills; and schools would visit other schools to see where their own practices could be improved.
Now in it's sixth year, Humboldt School has been named Portland's only Beacon School — the highest performing school in Portland to complete the Oregon Reading First program and only one of three in the state to be given such a designation.
As a reward for the school's success, Humboldt has been given additional funding for another year to continue the professional development trainings, to fund a reading consultant and allows staff from other area schools are coming to learn and observe Humboldt's progress.
Mary Peake, Humboldt's reading coach, says the experience the teachers have garnered from the program has been invaluable. Test scores have improved across the board and Peake and Principal Jamila Williams say the teaching techniques everyone learned will have a wide effect for years to come. And although the program began as a way to ensure no grade school student was left behind, Peake and Williams are extending the teaching strategies to all of Humboldt.
"Were taking the strategies into sixth through eight," Williams said. "… We're using data to drive instruction to provide what the individual student needs."
Peake said the basics of the program are simple. Teachers know every student by name and where they stand in the program. Teachers share students, who meet in groups according to their needs. Instructors meet regularly to assess the individual needs of a student and what can be done to improve their reading proficiency.
"This really works to get kids at grade level," Peake said. "They communicate about behaviour and progress … there's more of a shared ownership. We share children, we share successes (and their failures)."
Williams sees it creating more trust among colleagues, improving communication.
Part of the program is knowing how all students are achieving. One of the planning room walls at the school is covered in tri-colored charts. Every student has a card that is placed according to their performance and their grade, allowing teachers to easily see which students need extra help.
"Last year, 100 percent of kindergartners met benchmark," Williams said. Third grade was 80 percent at benchmark and they hope everyone will be at such a benchmark by the time they leave Humboldt.
The team teaching environment has also helped to improve the way teachers instruct their class. As part of the grant program, classrooms must be open to observers at any time. Peake said they have a group from Gresham coming to observe classrooms this week and teachers and their students have become desensitized to strangers looking in on their work. Not only does it make teachers more prepared, it also makes students more focused, says Peake.
Once the grant runs out next year, Williams hopes to rearrange the budget in order to retain the position of reading coach. But she says many of the lessons of the program are already imprinted in the minds of Humboldt's staff. A low turnover rate at the school also helps to extend the reading program's benefits.
"Teachers can train other teachers," Williams said.
If anyone would like to know more about the school, you can contact Williams at 503-916-5468 or email jwilliams@pps.k12.or.us.

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