At the kindergarten round-up this spring at West Goshen Elementary School, teachers and administrators noticed something different: There seemed to be significantly more Hispanic children with parents who spoke both English and Spanish.
For a school that has seen a steady influx of Hispanic students for more than a decade, it was notable as school staff had long been used to teaching children of Hispanic immigrants who spoke little English.
West Goshen Principal Alan Metcalfe sees it as a hopeful sign, but one that also carries a challenge. Many of the students have no solid footing in either language, so there is a chance they may face increased difficulty not just in learning how to read, but making the critical transition to reading to learn.
For Metcalfe and his staff, their mission to find a way to reach those children in just a few short years seems urgent because the odds are so grim.
A 2010 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found students who don’t read at grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than students who are proficient readers. Students who are poor readers and live in poverty are the hardest hit; they’re six times at greater risk for dropping out.
“It doesn’t matter what we’re teaching if the students aren’t learning,” Metcalfe said. “To focus on anything other than learning is a big waste of time.”
West Goshen is a school full of students who, statistically speaking, face longer odds for high school completion.
Almost 80 percent of the students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. Nearly half the students are Hispanic.
Yet West Goshen Elementary has become a national model for a teaching-excellence program funded by public and private sources, called TAP — the Teacher Advancement Program.
A national model
In April, it was named one of the four best schools in the nation for implementing TAP, by its major private funder, the Milken Foundation.
The TAP money has given West Goshen some resources it needs to help teachers become better at their craft. It encourages teachers to pool their skills to better identify and more closely monitor students who are falling behind.
It’s created a shift in thinking, Metcalfe says. It’s moved teachers away from thinking about “what our students can do, to what we can do for our students.”
Since reading skills are so critical to future academic success, West Goshen’s reading teachers have been honing in on the vocabulary development of students in the early grades, and providing after-school help for students who need the most help.
Metcalfe says there’s some evidence of success. In March, third graders throughout Indiana took a new reading comprehension test, called IREAD (Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination.) A state law, passed in 2010, mandated the test as a means to measure reading proficiency and compel schools to provide help to students who fail.
At West Goshen, 78 percent of the third-graders who took the IREAD test passed. The number is impressive; according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 34 percent of America’s fourth graders are reading at grade level.
Metcalfe isn’t satisfied. Almost all the West Goshen third-graders who failed were students who speak English as a second language. Those students will get intensive help from the West Goshen teachers this summer.
Metcalfe argues the IREAD test scores don’t tell the whole story.
They don’t reflect, for example, the long-term impact of the school’s mentoring program that matches community volunteers with students who need support and encouragement.
Nor do they measure what he calls the “stamina” that West Goshen Elementary students are building that will help them persevere when they do get to high school.
His message for students is aspirational: they need a high school diploma so they can get to college.
“There’s not one kid in this school that I’d say that college is not possible,” Metcalfe said. “There are some kids who are going to need a lot of extra help to get there.”
Maureen Hayden can be reached at email@example.com