Focus group

Published 4:39 pm Monday, October 23, 2006

By By Lisa Tindell – news writer
Two students lounge on beanbags, headphones on and CD players running, as their classmates stretch out on comfortable couches. All have books propped on their laps.
Across the classroom, a separate group of students works independently on computers, while a third group gathers around a small table with a teacher.
This is not your typical middle school English class.
And Brewton Middle School educators say that's just what it takes to help reach at-risk students.
The school initiated Read 180 this year, a technology-based reading program that combines independent study and technology with traditional teaching methods.
After just a few weeks, Principal Doug Prater has high hopes.
Why the changes
Always high stakes, test scores have been even more scrutinized under Alabama's new accountability system designed to keep up with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Alabama now reports each school's test scores - mainly the results of the Alabama Reading and Math Test - for different demographic groups, from race to economics. If any one demographic, or &#8220aggregate” group, fails to meet the school's improvement goal, the entire school fails to meet Adequate Yearly Progress.
In 2005, Brewton Middle School missed AYP because three demographic groups - special education students, African-American students, and students in poverty - were just shy of the academic goals.
But this year, the school made all of its goals - even without help from the state's new system that allows schools partial credit for students who are partially proficient in a subject.
At Brewton Middle, with only about 100 or so students per grade, just a handful at each grade level fall under the risk groups - not proficient or partially proficient.
That's too many for Prater.
Overall, the numbers &#8220are pretty good,” he said. &#8220I understand it's not good for those students. We've got nine kids in the building who can't read. That's a problem. We are focusing on those students.”
New technology
With improvement goals in mind, Brewton Middle School joined the Alabama Reading Initiative for the first time this year. The school system set aside money for a reading coach at the school and has implemented new programs like Read 180 to reach at-risk students.
ARI has been in place at Brewton Elementary for several years - and the middle school was already seeing those benefits. The elementary school is &#8220sending us a much higher caliber of student,” Prater said.
In addition to the reading coach, Brewton Middle School added Read 180, a Scholastic-produced program that combines different techniques and technology to teach students reading, vocabulary and comprehension. Seventh and eighth grade students are using the program, and the school will add sixth grade next year.
The technology helps make the subject interesting again, said Superintendent Lynn Smith. By middle school, he said, &#8220it's hard to get good readers to take books home. The newness (of reading) has worn off. Our trends are very much like the state, but we're seeing a difference already, and these scores are pre-Alabama Reading Initiative.”
How it works
A Read 180 classroom is arranged to facilitate the rotations each group makes in a two-hour class block. In one corner is the library of books and CDs, including award-winners and classics like &#8220Holes” by Louis Sachar and &#8220The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton. Students in the independent reading group find their folders, books, CDs and CD players and stake out a corner of the room where comfortable couches and beanbag chairs give them 30 minutes of quiet reading time.
The CDs help them follow along in the book, offering vocabulary and comprehension tips as the students read.
Much of the classroom is taken up with individual computer stations, where students work independently on various interactive programs. The students wear headsets with microphones, which enable them to hear the instructor on the computer screen and also to read passages aloud. Reading out loud helps monitor their comprehension skills, Prater said.
A third group uses workbooks to answer questions in a small group setting with the teacher, the most traditional teaching method in the room.
Each group spends 30 minutes on an activity, then rotates to the next one.
The mix of independent reading time, interactive computer work and group discussion keeps students engaged and interested, educators said.
&#8220I this it's great,” teacher Sandy Nall said. &#8220The kids like it.”
Student Latrae Williams, working at a computer, said hearing the computer instructor read the words - and reading them back himself - is a great learning opportunity.
And Prater said the innovation helps teach skills that will last beyond the standardized tests.
The Read 180 program has had another positive effect, Prater said, by cutting into the number of students who show up in the school office on discipline referrals. &#8220They are engaged” in the program, he said.

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