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Staff Book Clubs Enhance Professional Development


Concentrated reading instruction with small groups of students -- known as boot camps in one California district -- are helping elementary and middle-school students on the cusp of reaching proficiency on the state tests overcome obstacles so they can improve their reading and test scores. Included: Description of an academic boot camp program.

“We live in a world of accountability. Adults have to take tests all the time, and, yes, we have to prepare.”

There are no pre-dawn bugle blasts or early-morning calisthenics, but academic boot camps in some schools are designed to get the troops in shape for their big mission: improving their skills and scoring higher on state tests.

We look at it at the middle school the same way as a coach would prepare for a big game, said Billie DaVolt, principal of Lakeland Village Middle School in Lake Elsinore, California. In our case, the big game is the state test.


The boot camps are held in the districts elementary and middle schools. The goal is to help students who are on the border of scoring in the proficient range on the reading section of the tests develop skills needed to move up several notches. State testing begins in second grade. Selected students meet in small groups for an hour once a week for eight weeks to work on basic skills. The boot camp sessions are taught by central office personnel. In some classes, teachers organize their own boot camps.

We look at it at the middle school the same way as a coach would prepare for a big game. In our case, the big game is the state test.

The idea for the boot camps came from Alain Guevara, executive director for instructional support services for the Lake Elsinore Unified School District. He had used boot camps when he was a principal in the district and found them effective.

We needed to intensify learning, and we focused on reading comprehension because that is a weakness in our district, Guevara told Education World. In some cases, students can read, but read too slowly and keep reading the same passage over, so we teach them what to look for in passages. We track students after tests and overall find students are improving in their reading comprehension skills.


Many of the students in the Lakeland Village Middle School boot camps are learning English as a second language and need strategies to help with reading comprehension, DaVolt noted. They decode well, but have to get over that hump into proficiency. One of the strategies they use is an approach called unravel that aids them in deciphering test questions and helps them find the correct answer.

Meet Larry Bell

Larry Bell is an award-winning educator and in-demand speaker. His inspirational messages have keynoted numerous national conferences. Larry travels America and the world presenting his Closing the Achievement Gap and The Power of a Teacher Through High Expectations seminars, which focus on practical ideas for improving test scores and helping at-promise students achieve success.

Have you seen Larry Bells article series on Education World? In this series, Somebody Needs You, Bell provides practical tips for improving students test-taking skills -- and test results -- in articles such as
  • Participation: One Key to Raising Achievement;
  • Teach Reading Strategies to Improve Student Test Performance;
  • A Simple Idea for Improving Math Achievement;
  • Power Verbs Help Ensure Students' Test Success;
  • Simulated Test Days Are Key; and
  • Prepare Students for Long, Dull Tests.

  • In some cases, students understand the test material, but are unfamiliar with certain words in the test directions. Administrators took a tip from educational consultant Larry Bell [see sidebar] and focused on what he calls the 12 Powerful Words students need to know for tests, such as formulate, evaluate, predict, compare, contrast, and analyze. In boot camp students learn ways to remember the meanings of those key words.

    Practice and learning new strategies helps build students skills and confidence, added Geri Peterson, principal of Railroad Canyon Elementary School. We did it last year as well, she told Education World. It gave them confidence; I felt it empowered them to take the test. For me, it was another person beside the teacher giving them the information.


    Students in the boot camps are organized into teams, which can earn snacks and prizes. If students attend all eight boot-camp sessions they can participate in a graduation ceremony with cake and ice cream. Non-boot camp students who score well on the tests and whose scores have improved are recognized for their achievements as well. Its a good celebration of student success, noted Peterson.

    DaVolt also would like to see an increase in teacher collaborations coming out of the boot camp experience. We hope in the future to have more teachers sharing best practices, she said.


    The district has received some criticism about the boot camps from people who think administrators are focusing too heavily on test preparation. But administrators said the approach is what makes the boot camps different. We live in a world of accountability, Peterson said. Adults have to take tests all the time, and, yes, we have to prepare. They [boot camps] could be kill and drill, but it depends on the teacher. If you make it creative and fun, it can make a difference in students performance.

    The boot camps also are just one part of the schools overall efforts to enhance student success, DaVolt noted. Its not just the boot camps; its what goes on across the board.



    Somebody Needs You: Columns by Larry Bell

    Article by Gary Hopkins
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