Minnieville Elementary School is located about half an hour outside of Washington, D.C. in Northern Virginia. Like much of the country, its student population has changed dramatically over the past two decades. As a Title I school, it currently serves a student body of about 520 students, 80% of whom qualify for free- and reduced-lunch and about two thirds of whom are English language learners.
The ELL student body also includes a number of children who are refugees and have limited or no formal schooling. As the population has evolved, so has the kind of instruction needed to ensure student success. One way that the school has tackled that challenge is by focusing on its approach to reading instruction.
Learn more about how the school has found success in its new approach in the article below, written by the staff at Minnieville. For additional information, see this related PowerPoint presentation, as well as this related video clip from Principal Nathaniel Provencio (who has since been named Associate Superintendent for his district, Prince William County Schools).
Revisiting "Centers" for Literacy Instruction
For years, Minnieville Elementary School, like so many others, utilized the "centers" approach to reading instruction. During this approach, one solitary teacher planned and prepared for students to rotate through 4 to 5 literacy centers to make time for a small guided reading group. Many students benefitted from this traditional approach of practicing multiple reading and critical thinking skills in stations, while embracing the concept of independent learning. Not long after arriving at the school in 2010, however, Principal Nathaniel Provencio realized that this approach was not working for all of the students at the school.
In 2011, while examining and observing the school’s instructional literacy practices, Mr. Provencio and the school’s literacy team found that even with the best efforts with literacy instruction, a major issue was apparent that kept a traditional center-based approach from being fully successful. In a 90-minute reading block, where a student receives a 20-minute guided reading group lesson, over an hour was typically left where a student was asked to be engaged in independent learning. While students were receiving personalized, small group instruction, as many as twenty or more other students were left to pursue independent learning with tasks that were designed to be “literacy time fillers”, and higher readers were only receiving two to three Guided Reading lessons per week.
This proved to be effective for a few learners, but due to the changing and evolving nature of the school’s demographics, which included higher numbers of students in poverty and second language learners, students required more meaningful differentiated and scaffolded literacy instruction to meet their unique needs. Even with some of the best planned and monitored “center stations”, students needed intense modeling, scaffolding and management routines in order to maximize a 90- to 120-minute literacy block. This need in turn was forcing teachers to not only plan for their 4 to 5 guided reading groups, but also plan for 4 to 5 quality literacy stations and prepare students for the demands of state assessments. In addition to these classroom concerns, unusually high numbers of students were being pulled for various intervention services. This was in part because teachers were begging that students be pulled out of their classroom during language arts to decrease the number of students they had to work with in the classroom.
Something Had to Change: More Boots in the Classroom
It was clear to the literacy team that this mindset was neither conducive to a collaborative culture for the school nor to students learning to read. Provencio notes, "We had a lot of students being pulled out, and we had these silos of instruction where the classroom teachers were not necessarily taking accountability for the successes or the challenges that their students had. It was the ESOL teacher's responsibility or was the Special Education's teacher responsibility to teach 'their' children."
During that year, Provencio and his school leadership team sought out schools that had similar student populations and whose achievement data showed gains in reading. The leadership team visited several local schools, and learned how to better utilize Classroom teachers, ESOL specialists, Reading Specialists and Instructional Assistants in a highly inclusive, collaborative environment to support literacy. After creating a school "asset map" in which the team identified the kinds of supports and expertise available on staff, the team then began crafting a new approach: an inclusive, highly collaborative, differentiated guided reading model that maximized classroom instruction while minimizing the need for pull-out reading support and services. This model was called "PRESS-In" (Pulling in Reading with Exceptional Specialist Support.) Provencio explains, "We wanted to make sure that that our program was totally inclusive and that students saw themselves as part of a strong classroom culture, where all the resources were being brought in, so we looked very strategically at the resources that we had in order to make this model work."
In basketball, a “full court press” is a defensive strategy that focuses on intense defensive pressure on the opponent. At Minnieville, the team determined that this approach would be use to counter stagnant student literacy rates, and the solution would be to utilize every support and educator necessary to improve school-wide literacy. PRESS-In encompassed most of the Guided Reading model. The small groups, leveled resources and strong record-keeping stayed. What changed? All students stayed in the classroom, while a literacy team came into the room during the language arts block to provide small group instruction alongside the classroom teacher within the classroom. As Provencio notes, “we put more boots on the ground in each classroom.”
He explains, “The principles of PRESS-In mean that everyone in a classroom gets a lesson at the same time. By setting up a classroom conducive to 3-5 small reading groups, we are able to logistically deploy members of our staff across grade levels for the most effective instruction possible. Every staff member in our school is a reading teacher. Period.”
How does it work?
The basic structure of the PRESS-In model is quite simple. A literacy team including ESOL, reading, and Title I specialists, along with highly trained reading assistants, joins the classroom teacher for a 30-minute block of time in the classroom. This team of support meets with their groups in the classroom and deliver small group reading at the same time alongside the classroom teacher. Each adult is responsible for a single guided reading group. The lessons are differentiated based on need and skills such as comprehension, fluency, decoding, and vocabulary development. Students are able to move amongst groups as progress is made.
The reading specialist is generally placed with first-year teachers and works with students that require the most services in reading. Second language learners work with the ESOL specialists and students reading on and above grade level can work with the classroom teacher or reading assistant. The PRESS-In team collaborates with grade-level teachers to ensure progress is measured, monitored and discussed and curriculum needs and integration are aligned. After the 30 minute block, the PRESS-In team moves to the next classroom to begin their small group instruction. The classroom teacher is now freed up to spend 60 to 90 minutes on delivering quality writing instruction, literacy skill based instruction, independent reading, etc.
“We’re taking care of everyone now and more transparent and collaborative in how we do business,” Provencio notes. “Every child in reading is on task and engaged and knows that a team of professionals is invested in their growth as readers and learners.”
While Provencio takes great pride in the ways in which his staff has adapted to this new model, it wasn’t an easy transition. Schedules had to be reexamined and altered, and staff members required significant amounts of training in Guided Reading, effective lesson planning, collaboration and logistics. Additional staff was hired to make this happen, which impacted the school’s budget. The change required a massive collaborative effort between all teachers, staff and departments, as well as a change of mindset with the faculty.
Yet for Provencio and the staff, the end results have been well worth the effort and investment: more students reading on grade level, more confident and engaged readers, better classroom management, and increased collaboration among staff. Students and teachers alike have benefitted from knowing what was happening inside the classroom, rather than missing what is going on due to pull-out sessions. Unexpected benefits resulted as well: a drop in special education referrals, a drop in classroom behavior problems, and an increase in gifted eligibility referrals. Most importantly, deeper student-teacher relationships resulted from the shift. The chance for students to develop relationships with additional adults has had an overwhelming positive impact as well. “In many cases,” Provencio notes, “students have the chance to bond with staff members outside their classroom teacher. It really is making a difference in our school community.”
At the same time, the change has also resulted in higher test scores. Since the full rollout in the 2012-2013 school year, reading scores at Minnieville have continued to rise. Over 80% of students consistently end the year reading on grade level and all students make at least one year’s growth. Minnieville is a Virginia Distinguished Title 1 school and has been recognized as School of Excellence by its school division and is an international modal professional learning community.
In reaching all students, the school has noted significant growth in students to whom English was a second language. PRESS-In is a form of sheltered instruction that ESOL students received on top of their current services. ESOL students now spend more time in small groups and build deeper relationships with other students and faculty. There are two distinct benefits to this; students are not only able to learn language skills from their peers in small groups, but also feel more comfortable communicating in those groups.
Provencio is quick to note that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A dedication to this model has led him to hire like-minded educators who were more than willing to learn the processes. “We couldn’t have done this without a dedicated, open-minded staff,” he notes. “It’s all about the people.” Current reading specialist Ashley Hoyle is one of those staff members building on the successes of the design. Hoyle, a first-year reading specialist, notes that while the program is always in a state of continuous improvement, the “bones” are here to stay.
“We can continue to make growth, train additional staff, and keep our group sizes small,” Hoyle says. “Realistically, the improvements are being made on the logistical side of it, as well as providing continuing education to our participating staff members. You really have to have a lifelong learning mindset for this program to continually be successful.”
As for PRESS-In, Provencio, Hoyle and the rest of the staff refuse to call it the new “status quo.” The fluidity of the groups and the ever-evolving needs of students keep the model fresh – which is why the model has been good a fit for the school. The flexibility of the approach allows staff to continually revisit instructional groupings and strategies in order to meet students’ needs as they change.
Provencio is proud of what the teachers are achieving at Minnieville. “Einstein's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That's where we were. Now we are able to learn from each other, enhance our collaborative planning as a professional learning community, and also our collaborative instruction. Just having everyone in the same room for language arts has made all the difference.”
And he encourages other principals to reach out and learn from each other, just as he did when looking for a solution that would work for their school: “At the end of the day, the principal has to be the chief learner. As soon as we ‘know’ something, it's going to change. Let's just learn from each other as a true professional community.”
More from Minnieville
- Video Interview with Principal Nathaniel Provencio
- Understanding Our School Community: A Principal Shares His Approach to Student Success
- An "Amazing Race": Building Community at Minnieville Elementary School