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Most Rockford elementary schools expanded their school day to focus on literacy. Has it helped?

The outside of Washington Elementary School in Rockford
Peter Medlin
Washington Elementary School in Rockford

Washington Elementary was one of 20 Rockford Public School District 205 elementary schools that chose to extend their day by 40 minutesto focus on literacy skills. It’s just for this school year, thanks to federal COVID relief funding. Students arrive a little earlier and go home a little bit later.

Angelique Malone is the principal at Washington. She says, looking at data, they realized the way they were teaching reading wasn’t effective for their students. And, digging deeper, they found that in their previous model, students were spending most of their time learning independently, instead of getting direct instruction from their teacher.

“We just kind of knew we had to do something different to get a different result. And then that kind of birth, the vision and idea around our ‘power hour,’” she said.

Assistant principal Erica Schwanke says that meant they needed all hands on deck.

“Every teacher in the building is being utilized,” she said. “So, we were able to have smaller group sizes. We're using our enrichment teachers, our Title teachers, social workers, everyone.”

At the beginning of the school year, every student was assessed and placed in groups based on their reading level -- not their grade level. So, the students working on phonics activities aren’t in the same class. They’re not all even in the same grade.

Schwanke says some classrooms have a mixture of 2nd through 5th graders. She says it also allows teachers to build relationships with different students throughout the building.

“We can move kids based on if they need more reinforcement," said Schwanke, "or if they need to be advancing further ahead."

She says that, based on their level, kids are placed on one of two paths. The first one is rooted in phonics. Educators say it’s the foundation of literacy.

It teaches students about the relationship between letter combinations and the sounds they make.

“And then once you've graduated or cracked the code, we like to say that you know how to read," said the assistant principal. "Then you move on to more of a comprehension pathway, which is reading to learn.”

That involves guided reading and understanding the context of what you’re reading.

Reading scores across the country have dropped over the past few years.

The Illinois State Board of Education recently released a new comprehensive literacy plan to try to promote research-driven reading instruction.

Schwanke says she hopes committing to a data-driven approach gives teachers stability since, over the past few decades, it’s been a pendulum swinging back and forth.

“It was a swing to phonics and then it swung to comprehension, and we found ourselves in this big hole,” she said. “And so, I hope that if we learned anything from that, it's that we need to not just look at one approach to literacy.”

On Friday, the first group of Washington students is graduating from learning to read to reading to learn. They’re holding a graduation ceremony for those 62 students to celebrate that achievement.

And Principal Malone believes the literacy model is benefiting more than just those students. She says data from their mid-year assessments is encouraging.

“We had 46% of our students at or above grade level. Compared to winter last year, [when] we only had 26%,” said Malone. “So, we saw a 20% increase with just these first few months of school [from] fall to winter.”

The federal relief funding ends after this year, but with these results, Malone says it would be a mistake to quit now.

“We're going to continue even if we don't have the extended time,” she said. “We'll have to borrow some minutes from here and there within the schedule but based on our needs here -- it's necessary.”

It might look a little bit different over the next couple of years. If literacy levels stabilize, they can continue using their program without moving kids around to different classrooms as much, but otherwise, they’re just getting started.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.