In Pennsylvania, fourth graders from middle and upper class families are more than twice as likely as their peers from low income families to score advanced or proficient on standardized reading tests, mirroring the nationwide trend.
In fact, over the last 40 years, socioeconomic status has become best predictor of student achievement. At Sunnyside Elementary, a Pittsburgh public school where more than three-quarters of the students are considered “economically disadvantaged,” teachers focus on meeting kids where they are academically. In part three of this Life of Learning series, we report that has had some unintended consequences, beyond higher test scores.
Second grade teacher Justin Dudczak leads his students through an exercise meant to help them understand how numbers are related. On a white dry erase board he’s drawn a grid, with the numbers 15 through 18 in one row, 25 through 28 directly below that, and 35 through 38 directly below that. Students are practicing counting by ones horizontally and by tens vertically.
After they fill in the grid, he directs the students to split up into groups that he’s already pre-assigned: bananas, apples and oranges.
The apples sit with Dudczak on the floor, using a number chart to get more practice with the type of exercise he’s just led them through.
At the other end of the classroom, the oranges group is working with a classroom aide to build three digit numbers out of colorful blocks that represent ones, tens and hundreds. Elsewhere, the more advanced bananas are partnered off, playing a card game to practice inequalities.
“You have to pick two cards and you have to add them together and the other person who’s playing with you picks two cards and if it’s equal you put the equal sign,” student Khloe Shealey explains. “If the other person on the right has more than the person on the left then you have to put an alligator mouth, that’s what we call it, and the alligator eats the number that’s bigger. And if the person on the left has the more the alligator eats their number.”
This is what’s called differentiated instruction, a teaching philosophy where students engage in different activities based on their strengths and weaknesses. It can help prevent advanced students from feeling bored and struggling students from feeling left behind.
The idea is to encourage every student to grow and to push themselves, said special education teacher Jennifer Barger.
“Constantly just thinking, our minds are working together for the students to aspire to higher levels, weekly, daily, minute by minute,” Barger said. “We praise and celebrate when the successes are there, no matter how small they are, they’re worthy, and that just keeps their heart beating and everyone working together.”
And she means everyone; it’s all hands on deck first thing in the morning when, right after breakfast, students move into reading intervention.
In a computer lab, gym teacher Keith Adzima is with half a dozen fifth graders who are reading short non-fiction passages on a program called Read Naturally.
Fifth grader Selena Barber whizzes through the passage, reading so quickly it’s unintelligible.
But she’ll need to read accurately, as well as quickly, to move up to the next level, said Megan Harita, who oversees reading interventions for all 300 students.
“If they’re able to reach their benchmark in winter and surpass it to a larger amount, then they’ll move into the next intervention which focuses on vocabulary,” Harita said. “A lot of times what I do is if I see growth, but it’s just, ooh we’re just at benchmark, I leave them in to make sure that it happens at the end of the year, and then the following year move up.”
Teachers used to use an older version of the same program, with CD players and paper printouts. The nice thing about using computers and iPads for reading intervention, said third grade teacher Michelle McClain, is the data.
“This gives such good information. There are graphs about their vocabulary, how they’re doing … and it’s good feedback for them and a good motivator for them,” she said.
Aside from motivating kids with data and meeting them at their level, there is another perk to the way Sunnyside does reading intervention.
Teachers said pitching in and teaching each other’s students in the mornings helps strengthen the family-like atmosphere Principal Laura Dadey has cultivated over the last 13 years.
“There is a very extreme positive rapport in the community,” he said. “We know the kids from each grade level, (are) comfortable with them and able to be flexible with them, understanding what we need to do to meet their needs.”
Teachers float in and out of each other’s classrooms, helping with technology or a writing lesson, sharing tips and stealing ideas, and getting to know kids they don’t normally teach. First grade teacher Pam Reddick says it wasn’t always that way, but under Dadey’s leadership teachers have thrown open the doors of their classrooms and started thinking about the bigger picture.
“We don’t just focus on our grade level, we focus on the previous grade level and the grade level after us so we can incorporate it all together,” she said.
Like a positive feedback loop, a tight knit family atmosphere keeps teachers coming back year after year. The teacher turnover rate at Sunnyside for the last three years is less than half that of the district: 9 percent versus 22 percent.
"When you get a hug from an eight grade student, that you never had in class, every morning, that’s something special,” said STEM teacher Chris Warden, who has been at Sunnyside for 13 years. “It’s a good reason to come to work every day.”