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School was just beginning at the end of August, but the students at Wells Academy were already hard at work.
Teacher Heather Davis led her first-graders through “fast-track phonics” — an animated program projected on a screen at the front of the class to help kids associate sounds with letters. The program came from a curriculum called Success for All, which is used in all Steubenville’s elementary schools. Second-graders in Amber D’Aurora’s class used Success for All when they worked on understanding the meaning of new vocabulary words. Dawn Takach’s third-graders were also using Success for All when they eagerly discussed stories they were reading.
That intense focus on learning is the major reason why Wells scored at the top of all Ohio elementary schools in the most recent state tests — a significant achievement in a school where more than 40 percent of the 316 students in preschool through fourth grade come from low-income households.
This story is part of a series written in collaboration with NBC for the annual Education Nation summit.
But that’s not the statistic that Wells principal Joseph Nocera likes to cite. The state test, he says, is just a “snapshot” of how his students performed on one day. Nocera, a 37-year veteran of the Steubenville schools, is much prouder of the fact that just about all of his students read at or above grade level, which puts them on par with much wealthier schools.
He starts each morning with a question blasting over the loudspeaker.
“Why are we here today?”
The answer echoes through the school’s corridors as students yell out, “I am here to learn.”
It wasn’t always this way at Wells, which shares a building with Steubenville High School on the north side of the city’s fading downtown. For generations, steel mills brought prosperity to Steubenville, nestled on the Ohio River near the West Virginia border. But the mills started shutting down in the 1980s. With jobs gone, the population dropped. Many of the residents who remain are struggling, Nocera says. “You still have a strong work ethic here even though people may be underemployed,” he says. “They pass that work ethic on to their children.”
In 2011 66 percent of fourth-graders across the country scored below proficient on national reading tests.
The Challenge: An achievement gap that is more pronounced in reading than in any other discipline, with barely a third of American fourth graders reading at grade level last year.
A Solution: Success for All is a school improvement program with a heavy focus on reading. At the Wells Academy in Steubenville, Ohio, 100% of students have scored proficient or above on Ohio state reading tests since 2005 using the Success for All program.
(Source: National Center for Education Statistics)
Despite the hard times, the city retains a small-town feel, says Takach, the third-grade teacher. She has lived in Steubenville all her life and went to nearby Franciscan University before starting her teaching career 13 years ago. “I never moved away,” she says.
Strong teacher endorsement
But it took more than a strong sense of community and a dedicated staff to put Wells at the top of the class.
Around the time Takach was graduating from Franciscan, Steubenville district officials decided to revamp their curriculum. At Wells, nearly a quarter of fourth-graders were reading below grade level in 1999. Steubenville looked for a program based on research that worked well for students from low-income backgrounds. The winner was Success for All, developed by two educators at Johns Hopkins University, Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden.
Success for All requires that at least 75 percent of teachers in a school vote to adopt the program. “We want to be really sure that the teachers know they have chosen this,” says Slavin, “that this is not something that their administration has forced on them.”
In Steubenville, the vote was unanimous. Melinda Young, who had just become principal at Wells, says teachers were impressed by Success for All’s emphasis on continuing training. Too many so-called reforms dumped a curriculum on teachers without any support, she says. Success for All promised to come to Steubenville at least twice a year and make sure that teachers understood the material, says Young, who is now Steubenville’s director of programs.
Success for All started in a single school in Baltimore in 1987. When Steubenville adopted the reading program in 2000, it was already in place in dozens of schools around the country and Slavin and Madden had years of research behind them to help fine-tune the curriculum, a process that continues to this day. Slavin says more than two million students have now been through the Success for All program.
Before Success for All, each teacher at Wells was in charge of his or her classroom curriculum and the quality was inconsistent. That changed dramatically with Success for All, which is highly scripted. Teachers get manuals outlining the material they should cover every day along with specially created materials — like the animated fast-track phonics, which uses cartoon characters to capture kids’ interest.
- Wells Academy has won numerous awards and honors, including the National Title I Distinguished School Award, Education Trust Dispelling the Myth Award, and National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
- In 2010-2011, Wells had the highest performance index score of any elementary school in the state.
- Since 2005, 3rd and 4th grade students at Wells Academy have been scoring 100 percent at or above grade level for reading on the Ohio Achievement Test.
The curriculum is crafted so that each year builds on the previous year’s knowledge. Success for All’s reading program worked so well that the Steubenville school district adopted its math program the following year.
Since then, reading and math test scores at Wells and the district’s other elementary schools have been steadily rising. (Those are the only subjects directly taught using Success for All.)
‘We’re all on the same page’
Success for All has its critics who say that the curriculum is too scripted and doesn’t allow teachers to add their own touches. Takach disagrees. “You can add your own stuff into it,” she says. “You do what works for your classroom.” Takach says Success for All frees her from having to spend hours developing lesson plans and allows her to concentrate on giving each child what he or she needs. Because all teachers in the school use the same curriculum, she and her colleagues can help each other. “We’re all on the same page,” she says.
Cooperative learning, which emphasizes students working in teams, is another major component of Success for All. During the daily 90-minute reading period, for example, students at Wells sit in groups of four as they read, write and help each other answer questions. Nocera thinks this develops their ability to work collaboratively — a major skill in the modern workplace.
The curriculum also involves parents, who have to sign off on their children’s homework, among other tasks. “Parents need to be on your side,” says Slavin. “It makes it much easier for the school. But even if parents aren’t terribly involved, that doesn’t relieve the school of its responsibility. One way or another, that kid’s got to succeed.”
Success for All’s biggest asset is decades of research, other educators say. “There are so many things out there that are these silver bullets not based on any evidence,” says Elaine Simon, an education researcher who is co-director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “Compared to those, this is like a Mercedes-Benz.”
In Steubenville, the transition to such a structured curriculum was difficult at first. Even though all the teachers voted for it, some were still skeptical that it would work. But more than a decade later, just about everyone is a believer. Earlier this year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich decided to deliver his annual State of the State address at Wells in honor of the school’s high scores. At Wells, he told the audience, “Nothing stands in the way of kids learning.”
This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.