Goal-focused reading practice takes center stage at Whitney Houston Academy | Renaissance

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Goal-focused reading practice takes center stage at Whitney Houston Academy

Whitney Houston Academy

East Orange, NJ

Whitney Houston Academy, located in East Orange, New Jersey, is the lone pre-K–8 school in the East Orange School District.

Whitney Houston Academy


  • Students lacked motivation
  • Students showed little interest in reading


  • Renaissance Accelerated Reader®
  • Renaissance Star Reading®
  • Renaissance Star Early Literacy®


  • Goal-focused practice has generated a new enthusiasm for reading
  • A renewed interest in reading and visiting the school library

Students at Whitney Houston Academy in East Orange, New Jersey, are reading like never before, comprehending what they are reading, and meeting personalized goals to grow as readers.

Goal-focused practice has given students new enthusiasm for reading. A bulletin board in the hallway depicts a mountain with tiny climbers who bear the smiling faces of homeroom teachers. As students reach their Renaissance Accelerated Reader® goals, their homeroom teachers “climb” the summit of Mount Accelerated Reader.

Reading practice at Whitney Houston Academy

“It’s a friendly competition that motivates students to achieve their goals and get their teachers to the top,” said Literacy Coach Dana Sprague.

Houston Academy, the only pre-K–8 school in the district, encourages a family-like atmosphere while teaching children that knowledge and good character are key to success. Performing arts is a main feature for middle school students. After grade 5, students audition in the areas of visual arts, vocal music, instrumental music, dance, technology, or theater arts to remain in the school for grades 6–8.

The school began using Accelerated Reader two years ago after researching reading practice programs at other schools. Along with hearing from other educators, Sprague learned about the effectiveness of Accelerated Reader in much the same way it grew to become the most widely used reading program beginning 30 years ago.

“My niece was reading a book and I asked if she was reading for a book report,” recalled Sprague. Her niece replied, “No, we are using Accelerated Reader. We have a goal.” Soon after, the story of Accelerated Reader at Houston Academy began, and goal-focused reading practice now takes center stage.

Students read at right level for growth

“The kids have a new appetite for reading,” Sprague said. “Students are coming to the library daily asking for their ATOS levels. Now they are identifying and reading books at the right level for growth.”

As a literacy coach, Sprague works with small groups to implement curriculum, instructional, and intervention strategies. Students read 20 to 30 minutes each day as part of their independent reading practice. She knows students who have goals read more than students who do not have goals, and students are reading like never before.

“Accelerated Reader has accelerated our students’ enthusiasm for reading,” said Ann Marie Rogalcheck-Frissell, media specialist. “Books barely get checked in the library media center before someone is waiting to check them out.”

The personalized, goal-focused reading practice is having an impact across content areas. “Even though I teach math, I stress that reading takes place everywhere,” said Sharon Johnson, a eighth-grade math teacher. “My students began a lunch group and began to encourage each other to read. I am delighted that Accelerated Reader has ignited in them a renewed interest in independent reading.”

The school rolled out Accelerated Reader in segments. In the first marking period, 23 students hit their personalized goals. By the second marking period, 87 students reached their goals. Sprague noted that teachers are seeing the highest growth among students in second grade, noting this supports efforts to get students reading on standard by third grade.

“Accelerated Reader is a lifesaver because now I don’t have to read book reports,” added Tresala Smith-Parker, third-grade teacher. “Accelerated Reader does all the work for me plus provides meaningful data for my student reading growth.”

“The kids have a new appetite for reading,” Sprague said. “Students are coming to the library daily asking for their ATOS levels. Now they are identifying and reading books at the right level for growth.”

Houston Academy brought Accelerated Reader to the school a year after the district began using Star assessments. As part of the effort to assure students are reading by grade 3, kindergarten students take Renaissance Star Early Literacy® assessments. Students who score as probable readers move to Renaissance Star Reading®.

“We started with analyzing grade equivalency and instructional reading ability,” Sprague said. “Star Reading reports help assure a good start by screening our youngest students for early literacy.”

As literacy coach, Sprague presents professional development topics to staff, school-wide and district-wide, on a weekly and monthly basis. Most topics revolve around understanding new literacy strategies, navigating through digital literacy programs, or data analysis on all programs related to reading progress.

“Teachers love how data is instantaneous,” Sprague said, adding that they use Star Reading growth reports to differentiate instruction for individuals or groups, and to measure Student Growth Objectives. Teachers set goals of growth for tiered groups of students and check progress with fall and spring Star Reading assessments.

“Star Reading reports are essential in assisting staff with understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each student and how they measure up to mastering our state standards,” Sprague said. Scaled scores and screening results determine reading groups for daily small group instruction and remedial programs.

Sprague was as an elementary teacher for eight years and peers named her “Teacher of the Year” during the 2010–2011 school year. She took on her current role as Elementary Literacy Coach in the 2014–2015 school year, thrilled at the opportunity to work with colleagues in this capacity. She receives training on literacy, data collection, and digital learning programs the district provides. In the first year implementing Accelerated Reader throughout all grade levels (2–8), Sprague worked with teachers to create a consistent design of program use.

Teachers collaborate to set students’ goals

Each marking period, teachers collaborate and use assessment data and notes from small-group instruction to set students’ goals. After quarter goals are set, teachers meet with students in small group instruction and discuss their marking period goals. Teachers then monitor Accelerated Reader quizzes and student engagement. Some classes have a sign-up sheet. The teachers meet with students to ask probing questions about the book to determine whether they are prepared for the quiz. Other classrooms utilize “Who, What, Where, When” question cards.

In order to empower students to own their challenges and commit to achieving their goals, motivation for goal setting is set upon individual and class incentive programs. Accelerated Reader makes it easy for teachers to set personalized, realistic, and attainable goals based on students’ reading levels, enabling them to share in celebrations.

Students at Whitney Houston Academy meet personalized goals and climb “Mount Accelerated Reader” as they grow as readers.

“Students who hit their goals receive vouchers for items from our school’s Dragon Shop, which is filled with items such as book bags, tee shirts, and school supplies,” Sprague said. “The class with the highest percentage of goals achieved earns a pizza party each marking period.”

Accelerated Reader has evolved over the years, all while continuing to deliver the goal-focused reading and motivation educators have counted on for decades. Educators set personalized goals to advance each student’s reading quality, quantity, and complexity.

Like thousands of schools, Houston Academy is beginning to incorporate Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360® nonfiction articles and built-in skills practice into instruction. The next step will be to use the K-3 read-aloud articles and model close reading of nonfiction articles.

“Mrs. Sprague has implemented an outstanding Accelerated Reader program,” said Henry Hamilton, principal of Houston Academy. “Students and staff have accepted this program due to her motivating techniques—a job well done.”

“Our motto is reading is everything,” Sprague said. “You breathe. You read.”

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