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Reading Initiative Pays Off

The Calhoun County (Alabama) School District has been able to improve reading levels after training instructors in a new teaching strategy. Now the district plans to address weaknesses at the secondary level.

Despite large reductions in state and federal funding, the Calhoun County (Alabama) School District has found ways to improve reading at all grade levels and begin to address weaknesses at the secondary level.

The Calhoun County district serves nearly 10,000 students from the rural areas surrounding the cities of Oxford, Piedmont, Jacksonville, and Anniston.

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Several Calhoun County schools are continuing to implement a new training program for teachers and other staff members that was designed to improve the teaching of reading at all grade levels.

Called the Alabama Reading Initiative, the program is based on research-validated strategies for teaching reading. Teachers and paraprofessionals were paid $50 a day to attend programs where they were instructed how to be trainers, spending two weeks in research, study, and learning. The costs of the program were covered by a combination of state, local, and federal funds, including Title I funds.

Several of Calhoun's Title I schools implemented this program as part of their NCLB efforts, and results were quickly apparent in classrooms, as teachers put into place a variety of reading interventions. Fundraisers were held to purchase more books for students, and reading was given the highest priority in the schools. The total emphasis was on assuring that every child was learning to read.

Calhoun County schools met Alabama's criteria for making adequate yearly progress (AYP) for 2003, a critical step under the accountability provisions of NCLB. But the biggest challenge faced by Calhoun County School District is the performance of middle and high school students. In 2003, secondary schools made AYP, but the district is concerned about the achievement decline in the transition years between sixth and ninth grades. Staff members at all schools are looking at curriculum and professional development to determine what technical assistance is needed to reverse this trend.

Recognizing that secondary schools are more difficult to change in terms of content delivery and learning expectations, the district implemented a new program of Student Advocates for 2002-03. Student Advocates were staff members with some social work background who worked with teachers, students, and parents. The goal of the program was to reduce behavior problems and apathy among secondary students at risk of dropping out of school and replace their negative influences with goal-oriented strategies.

The advocates provided guidance and encouragement to individual students, helping them to develop positive behaviors that would improve learning and to address attendance and discipline issues that affect achievement. Staff members identified students in danger of dropping out and enrolled them in small group instructional settings. This effort was designed to assist students with getting their high school diplomas by helping them develop realistic plans for finishing high school. This program had to be dropped for the 2003-04 school year due to lack of funding.

In light of Calhoun County's ample experience in dealing with change, district staff members believe they will find ways to implement the requirements of NCLB, even if it seems very difficult right now. Calhoun found creative solutions to complex problems many times in the past, and staff members are confident they will do so again. District staff point to what they call a local commitment to improve academic achievement for all students as one of the district's strengths.


Center on Education Policy

The read the full report, see A Look Inside 33 School Districts: Year 2 of the No Child Left Behind Act.