Choosing what to read enhances love of reading

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Teachers and administrators have already seen positive results from a new reading-based curriculum in the Eureka Springs elementary and middle schools.

In an interview last week, Elementary School Principal Clare Lesieur and Instructional Facilitator Chrys McClung described the program supplied by American Reading Company. “This gives us a new focus on reading,” Lesieur said. Students will spend more time reading and they will have more choices. In addition, the vast inventory of reading materials all carry information on reading level, so students can quickly find books that will challenge them without overwhelming them.

“We want to create a culture where kids love to read,” Lesieur said.

           Almost a year ago, administrators, classroom teachers, and literacy specialists in the elementary school formed a “reading task force” to look for more effective ways to improve reading skills. “We invited anyone who wanted to be involved,” Lesieur said. “We did a lot of research, and compared some new programs.” After previewing sample materials, they decided that the American Reading Company provided the best fit with the district. A team from the middle school came to the same conclusion. Middle School Principal Cindy Holt said, “Both groups loved this one.”

Based on the recommendation from the two schools, Supt. Bryan Pruitt attended an Internet seminar with ARC in the spring. “It was a great presentation,” he said, but the program carried a hefty $250,000 price tag. “We’re not opposed to spending on resources, but I wanted to make sure we had complete buy-in from everyone.” Based on the enthusiasm he saw, Pruitt recommended the program to the school board.

Lesieur said the elementary school had a detailed plan from ARC in spring, and boxes of books for each classroom arrived in July. “The teachers came in and previewed the books, and set up their classroom libraries,” she said. The teachers had a day of training during the summer, and they receive continuing support from ARC. “Coaches” from the company come into classrooms to demonstrate methods. “They’re just a lovely company to work with,” the principal said. ‘They really care about our kids!”

The school sent a letter home to parents at the start of the year asking them to sign a contract to encourage reading at home. Ideally, students should read for two 15-minute periods at home, to complement the reading sessions in school. “The parents are really home coaches,” McClung said. “It makes such a difference when they reinforce the reading habits the kids are learning at school.”

The students can choose from a variety of enjoyable reading materials, customized for different levels of accomplishment. “They have some really diverse choices,” McClung said. “It’s fun to watch them ‘shopping’ through titles for something to read.” McClung also explained the importance of “meeting all students where they are,” and having something for every performance level.

The ARC program focuses on basic literacy skills early in the year, and later content-focused modules reinforce those skills.

Holt said the fully-aligned curriculum helps eliminate gaps that might occur with individual teachers assembling their own lesson plans. She said the ARC has provided a lot of support in implementing the program. “This comes with extensive professional development,” she said. “They’re back in our building this week, in the classrooms with our teachers.”

Eureka Springs becomes the first district in the state to use the ARC program. “We expect to serve as a model for other schools,” Lesieur said. She said she could already see kids reading more and enjoying it more. She said the school expects to see improvements during standardized testing in spring. “We absolutely expect to see results,” she said without hesitation.

She explained that students in the district have performed better on shorter tests, but they seem to “fizzle out” on longer tests. “They’re building their stamina by reading more often, and for longer sessions,” Lesieur said.
Holt said the district’s push for more technology in the lower grades would also help to improve test scores. Students take state tests on computers, and having more practice with computers will make them more comfortable in the test setting.
Arkansas schools still have Common Core standards to meet, but the ARC program is compatible with Common Core. The program also fits well with other existing parts of the curriculum.

On a related note, the elementary school will soon choose a book for all students and staff to read simultaneously. A grant from the Carroll County Community Foundation will pay for enough copies of the book for each student. “This makes reading more of an event,” McClung said. “It also encourages kids to talk about something they’ve read with other kids, since we’ve all read the book.” Students in the lower grades will hear parts of the book read aloud to them.

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