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'Risky' charter partnership helps students learn to read

Though the classroom at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls, R.I., may seem like any other, it has one key distinction: It's part of a rare charter school-traditional school partnership.
Image: Teacher Karina Flores discusses book selections with Jinnette Santana and Amy Monroy, right, during a reading workshop at The Learning Community charter school in Central Falls, R.I.
Teacher Karina Flores discusses book selections with Jinnette Santana and Amy Monroy, right, during a reading workshop at The Learning Community charter school in Central Falls, R.I.Daniel Holmes for NBC News / for NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

Nancy Chenard’s second-grade classroom is ready for reading: Her library is stocked, the phonics kits are prepared, a colorful bulletin board lists literacy learning activities and the rug is rolled out.

Though the classroom at Veterans Memorial Elementary School may seem like any other, it has one key distinction: Chenard, like other kindergarten through second-grade teachers in the district, is part of a rare charter school-traditional school partnership that has led to strong improvements in literacy in this impoverished Rhode Island school district.

“It’s built a community of readers,” Chenard said, referring to the “Growing Readers Initiative” created by The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, specifically for the school district. “There is so much partner work and partner talk, and reflecting and sharing, and the learning that's taking place … is very, very visible to us.”

The initiative has four components: professional development, quarterly assessments, a safety net run by reading specialists for struggling readers, and the “Reading Workshop,” a model popularized by Columbia’s Teachers College that ramps up peer-to-peer and student-teacher interaction in the learning process. The Learning Community also provides a crafted curriculum that includes daily teaching points.

The partnership had its beginnings in 2007, after the new district superintendent, Dr. Frances Gallo, learned about The Learning Community’s academic success.

The Central Falls students had low marks in reading, and Gallo, who saw literacy as a key step to improving student performance and helping to end the cycle of poverty in this city near Providence, visited the charter school to see what they were doing to develop strong readers.

She liked what she saw: “I said, ‘Well, I want that success in my schools,’ and we began to build a bridge.”

Test scores chart the improvement since the partnership began: From October 2009 through June 2012, the percentage of K-2 students in the district’s elementary schools reading at or above benchmark on the state’s Developmental Reading Assessment grew from 37 percent to 65 percent.

Though Gallo met some resistance from staff wary of charter schools, she said the process helped to dispel some of the myths about those institutions, including that they simply cherry pick the best students. At The Learning Community, they hold an annual blind lottery.

“We had anticipated a long road of trying to convince superintendents to partner with us because at the time that would be very risky on a lot of fronts and so when she approached us it was … really wonderful because it just helped us to meet our mission of really actively supporting other public schools,” said Meg O’Leary, one of the co-founders of the charter school.

“Everyone knows that it’s a political hot button to think about charter-traditional school partnership and so some superintendents see that as really risky in terms of them being able to get the support of their unions,” she added.

Third grader Valeria Uribe gives a thumbs-up to a book during a reading workshop in Karina Flores' class at The Learning Community charter school in Central Falls, R.I.Daniel Holmes

As Gallo found out, the K-8 charter school had similar demographics to the rest of the district: mostly Latino, on free or reduced price lunch, with around one quarter of its pupils being students whose first language isn’t English.

“When our kids come, they haven’t had preschool, they haven’t had books at home, they haven’t had the language at home, it’s like we're already behind,” Gallo said. “We’ve got to catch up.”

A drive through the city’s streets shows boarded up buildings in Central Falls’ roughly one square mile, where 25 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

The district has weathered some tough challenges: The lone high school came under a searing national spotlight in 2010 as one of the country’s worst-performing schools, and state budget cuts of nearly $3 million in each of the last two years have led to reducing support staff, such as reading specialists.

The city, which filed for bankruptcy last year, does not make contributions to the schools since the area is so impoverished. The state took on full financial responsibility for the schools just over 20 years ago, Gallo said.

The Growing Readers Initiative pilot program began with four classes and now includes all of the district’s K-2 classrooms.

Gone are the rote textbooks that were once staples in Central Falls’ classrooms and still are in others. Now, teachers can choose any literature they think would best fit their students and the daily lessons. They’re also better able to focus in on the reading ability of each student, by grouping them together.

“We've really made it our own, using The Learning Community’s framework and lessons,” said Chenard.

The school district had paid about $100,000 a year to The Learning Community for the program since 2009 when it went to all K-2 classrooms, O’Leary said.

The district can’t pay that this year, so The Learning Community applied for and received a grant from the state education department to cover the funding and continue the partnership, she added.

The Learning Community said their initiative wasn’t a “solution” to the district’s literacy challenges, emphasizing the constant exchange of ideas between each side.

“It's more than just the actual tools that we shared. It’s more about the collaboration and the work from teacher-to-teacher and the reflections and figuring out ways to help whenever there are obstacles,” said Christine Alves, The Learning Community’s director of external professional development. “I know for a fact … that's where the heart of it all lies, in the collaboration.”

The charter school will expand its work with Central Falls this year to cover standardized test taking, as Rhode Island gears up for the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of educational standards adopted by 45 states that goes into effect in 2014. The work has invigorated Central Falls teachers, who can see the reading program already positively filtering into the students’ learning in other subjects.

“They seem to, for the most part, have more of a love of reading and wanting to read,” said Cheryl Thurber, another second grade teacher at Veterans. “Not wanting to read because I said so, and not wanting to read, because it’s a punishment. They enjoy reading. I genuinely believe they enjoy it.”