Alexandria school officials pin high hopes on new reading program

Alexandria school officials pin high hopes on new reading program
(File Photo)

Updated 12:23 p.m.

By Melissa Quinn 

A new reading program in Alexandria City Public Schools has administrators buzzing, but teachers and parents remain on the fence.

Success for All, which was first adopted by Jefferson-Houston a year ago, aims to boost reading comprehension, school officials said. Beginning this year, the reading curriculum serves students at elementary schools: John Adams, Mount Vernon Community and Patrick Henry.

The program’s creators tout its success in closing achievement gaps — a hotly debated issue for school board candidates. But a few have worried Success for All has lowered teacher moral.

“There are so many things that the school board and superintendent have implemented in recent years, and a lot of the teachers are feeling like there’s so much being done to them rather than the teachers being part of this change process,” said Kelly Carmichael Booz, a District B candidate for school board, at a debate earlier this month.

And residents have questioned whether ACPS Chief Academic Officer GwenCarol Holmes past ties to the organization warrant a closer look. But Superintendent Morton Sherman flatly rejected rumors of an ethical lapse.

“There is no conflict of interest; we cleared that with our attorneys,” he said. “That’s a bad way, an evil way, of thinking.”

Individual schools adopted reading programs best suited for their student populations, the superindent said. Not all have chosen Success for All.

“The program doesn’t make the difference, the teachers do,” Sherman said.

Still, administrators trumpet the program’s potential where it has been implemented.

“We have a population that is really interesting and wonderfully diverse,” said Peter Balas, principal at Mount Vernon. “But we needed a program that was going to address the needs of all of our learners.”

Success for All divides reading instruction into four sections: active, teamwork, assessment and celebration. Combining individual instruction with peer review, the program relies on positive reinforcement to lift students’ reading achievement. For struggling students, computer tutoring is available.

In preparation for Success for All, teachers attended training courses and set up quarterly reading goals to measure their students’ progress — all while participating in ongoing onsite development and coaching sessions.

Mount Vernon students were introduced to Success for All at the beginning of the year, and Balas said he’s already seen reading improvement based on first-quarter data. The transition to the reading program, though, has been met with some challenges.

“Are there growing pains? Absolutely,” the principal said of parents’ and teachers’ reactions to the program. “Support ranges from all over the spectrum.”

Rita Winstead, whose two children attend the Del Ray school, has mixed feelings about Success for All. Her fifth-grade son, she said, thrives under the curriculum. He’s learning comprehension strategies and how to figure things out using the context of a book.

But her first-grade daughter is struggling, Winstead said. Though she reads at a third- and fourth-grade level at home, Success for All has her reading at a first-grade level because her writing is not as advanced.

“I have mixed feelings depending on the child,” Winstead said. “My son appreciates the strategy side of it, but my daughter isn’t being challenged enough.”

Officials expected the program to cost $120,000 per school, but grants lowered the expense to $50,000.

According to Success for All’s website, schools using the program saw a 15.6-percent increase in proficient- or advanced-level scores among students in grades three to five on the state’s Standards of Learning tests. Additionally, fifth-graders enrolled in Success for All schools performed at a full grade level higher than those in other schools.

The district is using the program on a three-year trial basis. If SOL reading scores improve at the elementary schools, Success for All may go districtwide, officials said.