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Burrell elementary realignment paying dividends

Burrell educators on Tuesday showed the school board how the elementary restructuring has improved student literacy.

That was one of the driving factors for realigning the district's two elementary schools.

At the beginning of this school year, Bon Air became a primary school for kindergarten through third grade. Stewart became an upper elementary school for fourth- and fifth-graders. Previously, both schools taught grades kindergarten through fifth grade.

Superintendent Shannon Wagner has said ensuring students receive a strong reading foundation was the focus for the younger grades.

Encouraging critical thinking and STEM skills — science, technology, engineering and math — is a focus in the upper elementary.

Last night's presentation dealt primarily with the improvements students have made in reading.

"If a child doesn't learn to read by the end of third grade, it's going to be hard to get them where they need to be," Wagner said.

Bon Air Principal Amy Lenart and seven educators demonstrated how the restructuring has helped achieve that goal.

Teachers Rebecca Fisher, Ron Spiering and Cathy Shank spoke on how extended instructional time is helping teachers gather students in smaller groups and address their specific needs, whether that be remediation on specific skills such as vocabulary or phonics, or enrichment for students whose skills already are where they should be.

Specific needs addressed

Lenart said students go to need-specific classrooms for 30 minutes a day for nine days in a 12-day cycle. The 30-minute time slots — called WIN, or What I Need, time — are in addition to 90 minutes of daily reading instruction.

Students are re-evaluated after those nine days and then regrouped based on their needs for the next 12-day cycle.

Fisher, who teaches first grade, said her students look forward to the WIN time. They get to experience more teaching styles, while teachers get to interact with more students.

Spiering, a second-grade teacher, said he appreciated that the focus groups allow even advanced students to get extra instruction, including poetry and reading chapter books in his grade level.

"We get to take kids further than I ever thought we would," he said.

Shank, a third-grade teacher, said once several grades go through the revamped primary school, the hope is that fewer students will need remedial help because more will already be reading at or above their grade level.

Autumn Turk, the district's academic intervention specialist, and reading specialists Suzanna Hathaway, Kristin Gigliotti and Sherry Lucchetti presented charts showing how many elementary students met reading benchmarks at the beginning of the school year versus midway through the year.

In all levels except first grade, more students were meeting benchmarks by mid-year and fewer students needed major interventions.

Turk said it is common for more first-graders to struggle mid-year because they are expected to know much more difficult skills compared to when they enter the grade.

"This is our dream coming true with regard to what we want to do with literacy," Lenart said.

She said they again would assess the program's success at the end of the school year and present that information to the board.

Wagner said presentations on improvements in science, technology and math skills will be forthcoming. One component — the Engineering is Elementary curriculum — was not implemented until recently and the full rollout of changes to the way elementary science is taught won't occur until next school year.

Physical education teacher Justin Miller presented some of the changes to gym classes at Stewart, which now include a rock-climbing wall, a dance video game and wall-mounted exercise bands for strength training.

Miller said they've tried to adjust the physical activity options to fit the older elementary students' interests and space constraints at the school.

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