How to read 352 million words in five years: Walker Elementary beats the odds with successful reading campaign

The odds seemed discouragingly stacked against this California school. Ranked in 2011 as Santa Ana’s fourth-lowest elementary school, Walker Elementary struggled to boost the English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency of its largely Hispanic, high-poverty student population. According to the California State Test (CST), fewer than 35 percent of the school’s grade 2–5 students could read at grade level.

But 2011 kicked off a remarkable winning streak that produced a 50-point gain on the state’s Academic Performance Index from 2011 to 2013, an upsurge in grade-level readers to a school average of more than 42 percent in 2013, and a 2016 Gold Ribbon award from the California Department of Education. During the most recent school year, 390 avid first- through fifth-grade readers tallied more than 117 million words read in an ambitious schoolwide reading campaign.

Mariana Garate, principal at Walker Elementary, credits such success to a motivated team of teachers, students, parents, and community partners empowered by a suite of assessment and reading practice tools from Renaissance®. Garate says, “We give teachers the resources they need to set goals and monitor progress. Active reading practice along with individualized instruction helps students build skills, and the entire community encourages and celebrates their accomplishments. It’s been a winning model for improving reading proficiency. This year’s goal is 125 million words read. Based on Team Walker’s track record, we fully expect to achieve that—maybe more!”

The challenge: year one, 25 million words

Like many neighborhood schools, Walker Elementary serves a student population beset by disheartening poverty that too often manifests itself in illness, poor school attendance, discipline challenges, inadequate home support, and disruptive mobility. In the fall of 2011, testing reflected the negative impacts on Walker students: poor overall literacy skills and plummeting reading achievement with an alarming number of students performing one or more years below grade level in English language arts.

Walker educators undertook the challenge and put forth a concerted effort to change the trajectory of achievement. “Research shows that vocabulary and comprehension skills are directly linked to the number of words students encounter,” says Garate. “So we initiated a reading program with a first-year, schoolwide goal of 25 million words read. Admittedly we encountered skeptics, but a cadre of dedicated teachers made the commitment to participate. Together we developed a plan to optimize the resources already available to us, including Renaissance Star Reading®, Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®, and a library with leveled books.”

The results: 40 million words and renewed enthusiasm

Over the course of the 2011/12 school year, Walker Elementary students read a staggering 40 million words. The program sparked unexpected student enthusiasm for reading and converted skeptics into active contributors. “Since that first year,” continues Garate, “we’ve steadily increased annual goals to 60 million, 90 million, and higher, up to our current target of 125 million words. Most importantly, the program has positively impacted reading comprehension and even helped bolster the socio-emotional and behavioral outlooks of our students, confirming they can thrive in spite of challenges.

“We continue to see significant growth. From the first to third trimester of our latest school year, for example, first-grader fluency improved by 25 percent, and the percentage of that grade’s students requiring intensive instruction dropped from 51 to 15.”

Most importantly, the program has positively impacted reading comprehension and even helped bolster the socio-emotional and behavioral outlooks of our students, confirming they can thrive in spite of challenges.

Mariana Garate | Principal | Walker Elementary

The power of a goal

Star Reading provides assessment data that helps Walker Elementary teachers quickly determine skill levels and assign students to appropriate reading and intervention groups. The tool gives teachers invaluable planning assistance with suggested skills and standards correlation. Garate notes, “We start administering Star Reading assessments as soon as our students can read, typically in November of their first-grade year. When the students take that assessment, they can get a ZPD for use with Accelerated Reader 360. It’s particularly rewarding to watch first graders—who for the most part are still decoding—master the process. Realizing they can read a story and then confidently answer questions about it, they experience a real ‘wow’ moment—it’s priceless.

The information provided by Renaissance solutions is fundamental to tracking progress against goals. Garate believes that if you set the bar high, students will rise to it. Set it low, and you’ll be doing them a disservice. “I review data every day to make sure I understand where students are and how we can help each one progress. Teachers have likewise come to appreciate the value of a data-informed school and routinely participate in data chats where we share information, ideas, and plans. They also regularly share data with parents. Because Renaissance provides reports and many other resources in Spanish, we’re able to more effectively communicate student goals and progress.”

Flowers blooming, stars shining

Each school year, the Walker team sets aggressive individual, classroom, grade-level, and school goals. And each year the school has been rewarded with across-the-board growth and success. Most recently, for example, 57 percent of first graders finished the school year at grade level based on DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) benchmark assessment tests. Every grade showed improvement, advancing from eight to as many as 32 points by year end. The team has also celebrated individual achievements. Last year, ten second graders each read more than 300,000 words, and 15 students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades each logged a phenomenal one million words—an accomplishment more typically expected of seventh graders.

“Our students are hooked; they’re excited to be part of the Accelerated Reader 360 program,” comments Garate. “They particularly look forward to viewing progress reports. Each report includes an onscreen plant that ‘grows’ with their points for correct answers after taking Accelerated Reader quizzes—it’s amazing how motivating something as simple as a colorful, blooming flower can be! We also celebrate success with ‘Readers are Leaders’ t-shirts, field trips, book vouchers, campus assemblies featuring special guests, and other activities. Particularly visible is an Accelerated Reader 360 Reading Clubs bulletin board in the main office, filled with gold stars that include the names and word counts of students meeting their reading goals. The entire school takes pride in the inspirational display.”

Beating the odds

Garate and her team are committed to helping Walker students break the cycle of poverty. “We’ve also benefited from extended library hours in the morning where students can go to read to instructional assistants or take Accelerated Reader quizzes, as well as a greater community involvement, including volunteer reading tutors (for first graders) from businesses via the Internet. It’s a true team effort, with every contributor rooting for our students’ success, helping to instill a love of reading. Each of us understands that education provides the best path out of poverty. Our students expect to be productive citizens and, in many cases, to be the first in their families to go to college—I can see they already have that light.”

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