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NCLB Outrages

Parents speak out on reading

Ohanian Comment: I admit to being startled that teachers would be so loyal to scripts, that they wouldn't try to build on this parent discontent with scripts.

Please note that Nebraska is not so universally freedom loving as some might have hoped. Remember: Nebraska believes in local control, so when the locals want Direct Instruction. . . .

If you keep reading, you'll see DIBELS raise its ugly head.

by Connie Jo Driscoe

Angry mothers choking on tears and defensive teachers supporting a new reading curriculum and teaching method faced off for two hours Monday evening during the public forum portion of the McCook Public Schools' board of education meeting.

The meeting was moved from the conference room to the cafeteria to accommodate the 50 to 60 concerned parents and teachers who came to talk about and listen to concerns with a reading program called "Reading Mastery" and a teaching method called "Direct Instruction."

Parents told board members that they are concerned that the school district's new reading curriculum is destroying their children's self-confidence, that teachers are "teaching to benchmarks, not teaching to read" and that teachers and students are being treated "like robots."

Jennifer Kool, the mother of a second grader, said the school's new methods are "very disturbing. They're reading as fast as they can. There's no comprehension. There's no retention. There's no penmanship. There's no time for science, social studies or math."

Second grade teacher Kim Johnson told parents and board members that she is "okay with the scripted program," and that parents are not giving the new approach enough time. Johnson said, "I believe we are going in the right direction. You're judging something very new. I do think it's going to work."

Reading First is a three-year intensive reading program, funded with federal grants, for readers in kindergarten through third grade. Reading Mastery is a parallel or replacement core for students who are not reading at grade level. Reading Mastery uses "Direct Instruction," instructional techniques or teaching methods that are, in the McCook system, used in other subjects besides reading.

Both Kool and parent Joy Molcyk said that teachers have been told to "keep their mouths shut" and not say anything negative against Reading Mastery. Teachers "fear for their jobs," Kool said.

Molcyk said that "without fail, the para's (para-educators) and the teachers I have talked to said they are not allowed to discuss" Reading Mastery. She said that teachers have been "forbidden to say anything negative about Reading Mastery," that they have been told that "there are plenty of people who want their jobs."

Third grade teacher Paula Davis, Molcyk's son's home room teacher, disagreed, telling Molcyk that if she had asked her, she "would have told you I like the program. I would not have said I couldn't talk."

Davis said her class does do science and social studies, explaining that they are studying cells and Christopher Columbus. She does 30 minutes every day of the two subjects except Friday, when they read "Weekly Readers" children's magazines, which include stories on science and social studies.

Joanie Knoll told board members that the Reading Mastering instruction "degrades" her first-grade son "to a three-year-old level." "He's bored," she said. "He's not being challenged. We need to challenge our children at all levels, and we're not."

Johnson said that some of the instruction "does seem primary," but that every new school year starts with nine weeks of review, to renew what may have been lost over the summer. "It does look pretty juvenile if you don't understand the premise behind it," she said. But, she promised, "you'll see some challenging lessons shortly. We'll get to the challenging parts quickly."

With lots of prompting and nudging from Kool, who appeared to object to the routine of how each block of reading time begins, Johnson explained how reading class starts, with a method developed by former McCook Public Schools counselor Becky Ridenour. It involves a repeated series of "skills" that include students putting their hands in their laps, sitting quietly and looking at and listening to the speaker. Each skill is preceded by clapping.

Johnson said that her students then study the sounds that alphabet letters make -- with recitation prompted by clapping -- and advance then to words and sentences.

Parent Sharleen Riemenschneider told board members that her questions about McCook's reading program have not been answered for 2 1/2 years. "The core fact is there are deficiencies in the reading program in McCook. Those continue. We are still below state standards." She continued, "For two years, McCook is not meeting the state average. We are still deficient in reading."

Riemenschneider questioned the accuracy of test scores that place students within Reading Mastery levels. She also said, "We're told it's not a curriculum change, it's a delivery change. Yet it is a curriculum change and a delivery change."

Riemenschneider said her daughter has told her, "I'd rather die than go to school."

Julie Karp, speaking for many of the parents, emphasized that the parents are not attacking the teachers. "It's the curriculum and the teaching methods being questioned. Not the teachers," Karp said.

Karp said she is disappointed that she sent her daughter to McCook schools, saying that her daughter is being "brainwashed," and that she fears long-term psychological effects.

* Parents who spoke at the board meeting are upset that children move between classrooms and have more than one teacher. "Children should not have to count on their fingers the number of teachers they have," sid Ann Brown.

* Parents are upset that teachers seem to expect perfection. "Can we ask our kids to be perfect?" said Sonja Einspahr. "I know reading needs to be accurate, but timing them (as they read) is not appropriate," she said.

* Parents are upset with the testing that placed their students at the levels within Reading Mastery. Julie Gillespie, a mother of a second grader, said, "The Dibels scores and tests were not adequately explained as the only major assessment tool."

* Parents are concerned that their children are not wanting to read at home. Sandra Gray, a mother of two students at McCook Elementary, said, choking on tears, "His desire to read at home has dropped. He ... claps ... as he says ... his words. It's discouraging." Jolene Bradley, a mother of a second grader, said that her child "refuses to read at home. He doesn't even know what social studies is."

* Parents are concerned with the reading schedule. Colleen Benson said her children "can't sit still for two hours" immediately after breakfast and lunch."

* Parents are concerned that their students are becoming robotic. Parent Traci Loker said she watched as students in reading were "treated like robots. There's no individuality. They're drilled and drilled and drilled if someone gets something wrong."

* Parents are concerned that students are being labeled. Kool said that lower-level students "won't ever catch up."

* Parents are worried that students are not comprehending what they're reading. A grandmother, Cathy Cappel, told board members that students have been coached in speed reading, and that her granddaughter reads out loud so quickly that she is hard to understand. Cappel told board members that she is not sure how much her granddaughter is comprehending or retaining.

* Parents are concerned with a lack of communication between the school and parents. Kool shouted, "If we don't have the information, that's YOUR fault, Mrs. Latta (principal), and YOUR fault, Mrs. Smith (reading coach)." Kool said the first meeting that the school plans to discuss Reading Master with parents is next week.

Jolene Bradley said, "When did three hours of reading come about?"

Jeff Boardman said there seems to be a discrepancy over test scores -- are McCook's up or down?, he asked. "I want to know the truth," he said. He encouraged parents to "give the teachers and the board a chance to explain."

* Parents are concerned that reading blocks have usurped field trips. Glen Tietz asked if it was "fact or fiction" that field trips cannot be taken because students "have to be in (reading) block?"

Parent Sandy Krysl, a mother of a first grader, said she can see the reading program helping her son. "My son is reading. He's grasping sounds of letters and he can sound out words," she said. "I'm grateful for the instruction as it is."

"Some people are getting very angry, and teachers are being attacked unfairly. They deserve to be listened to, not just by shifting in your chairs and rolling your eyes," Krysl said. "As a parent, it is up to me to help teach (my child) at home."

Parent Jeff Boardman said, "What scares me the most is, we've got a mob mentality starting here. I hope we don't run our teachers out of town and then realize we've lost all the good teachers."

Jane Dewey, an elementary teacher and a mother of an elementary student, defended her fellow teachers. "The teachers are putting their hearts and souls into teaching your children," she said. "A child who cannot read cannot learn science and social studies." She encouraged board members to distinguish between research and opinions as they read through handouts presented to them by parents.

Kool apologized if she had offended anyone, but added, adamantly, "I can't keep quiet. I don't want my son to be a guinea pig while you people work out a program." She continued, "I'm being defensive because I'm sticking up for my son. I want to see him succeed. I don't want him to feel threatened. That's my job as a parent."

Principal Kathy Latta told parents that children were placed into Reading Mastery with two to three assessments tests, not one Dibels test. "We are doing our very best to use data, not feelings or opinions, to place students," Latta said. Even this angered Kool. "Teachers are using DATA? They're using only numbers?" she shouted. "Teachers need to have a say," she said. "Some kids don't take tests well. It's not a fair assessment of kids' skills."

Lynette Block, the director of Reading First for the State of Nebraska, told board members during a later portion of their meeting that a Reading First evaluation team visited McCook eight times in the past two years, and plans more visits this school year. She said that reading is hard to teach. "It IS rocket science," she said, as students learn phonograms, comprehension, retention and fluency. Block said that she and fellow evaluators visited the school Monday. "I saw some exciting learning going on," she said. "There was no crying, and no tears. I saw good things today."

Block said she was "saddened" and "surprised to hear some of the comments (at the board meeting) today."

Block did, however, suggest that the school look into conducting an audit of its schedule, examining how much time is spent on reading and other subjects. She agreed with board member Diane Lyons that an external evaluator might to helpful.

Because the comments came during the board meeting's public forum portion of the agenda, board members could take no action.

Board president Greg Larson said that there "are no answers tonight. It's an issue we need to address. It won't be an easy fix. We have to look at it from both sides."

Superintendent Dr. Don Marchant said that the parents' comments are welcome and appreciated, and admitted that communication from the school to parents "could have been better."

Dr. Marchant continued, "Right now, we're fully behind the program. We need to quirk it to fit McCook."

Board member Tom Bredvick agreed that communication ahead of time and review throughout the process could have been improved. "Communication is the Number One thing we have to do better. That's my first step," Bredvick said.

Board member Mike Gonzales said that he sees the meeting as a "positive move," saying that he understands that parents want to be involved and that they want what's best for their children. "Thank you for your concern," he said.

— Connie Jo Driscoe
McCook Daily Gazette


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