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Image: Teacher Karina Flores with Jinnette Santana and Amy Monroy, right
Daniel Holmes  /  for NBC News
Teacher Karina Flores discusses book selections with Jinnette Santana and Amy Monroy, right, during a reading workshop at The Learning Community charter school in Central Falls, R.I.
Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 9/24/2012 12:12:08 PM ET 2012-09-24T16:12:08

Editor's note: This story is one in a 10-part series on education solutions featured at the 2012 Education Nation summit in New York on Sept. 23-25. To learn more about these schools and how they made these solutions work, please visit EducationNation.com for a complete “digital toolkit.”

Nancy Chenard’s second-grade classroom is ready for reading: Her library is stocked, the phonics kits are prepared, a colorful bulletin board lists literacy learning activities and the rug is rolled out.

Though the classroom at Veterans Memorial Elementary School may seem like any other, it has one key distinction: Chenard, like other kindergarten through second-grade teachers in the district, is part of a rare charter school-traditional school partnership that has led to strong improvements in literacy in this impoverished Rhode Island school district.

“It’s built a community of readers,” Chenard said, referring to the “Growing Readers Initiative” created by The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, specifically for the school district. “There is so much partner work and partner talk, and reflecting and sharing, and the learning that's taking place … is very, very visible to us.”

The initiative has four components: professional development, quarterly assessments, a safety net run by reading specialists for struggling readers, and the “Reading Workshop,” a model popularized by Columbia’s Teachers College that ramps up peer-to-peer and student-teacher interaction in the learning process. The Learning Community also provides a crafted curriculum that includes daily teaching points.

The partnership had its beginnings in 2007, after the new district superintendent, Dr. Frances Gallo, learned about The Learning Community’s academic success.

The Central Falls students had low marks in reading, and Gallo, who saw literacy as a key step to improving student performance and helping to end the cycle of poverty in this city near Providence, visited the charter school to see what they were doing to develop strong readers.

She liked what she saw: “I said, ‘Well, I want that success in my schools,’ and we began to build a bridge.”

'Digital toolkit': Charter-district partnership spells success

Test scores chart the improvement since the partnership began: From October 2009 through June 2012, the percentage of K-2 students in the district’s elementary schools reading at or above benchmark on the state’s Developmental Reading Assessment grew from 37 percent to 65 percent.

Though Gallo met some resistance from staff wary of charter schools, she said the process helped to dispel some of the myths about those institutions, including that they simply cherry pick the best students. At The Learning Community, they hold an annual blind lottery.

“We had anticipated a long road of trying to convince superintendents to partner with us because at the time that would be very risky on a lot of fronts and so when she approached us it was … really wonderful because it just helped us to meet our mission of really actively supporting other public schools,” said Meg O’Leary, one of the co-founders of the charter school.

“Everyone knows that it’s a political hot button to think about charter-traditional school partnership and so some superintendents see that as really risky in terms of them being able to get the support of their unions,” she added.

Image: Third-grader Valeria Uribe
Daniel Holmes  /  Dan Holmes
Third-grader Valeria Uribe gives a thumbs-up to a book during a reading workshop in Karina Flores' class at The Learning Community charter school in Central Falls, R.I.

As Gallo found out, the K-8 charter school had similar demographics to the rest of the district: mostly Latino, on free or reduced price lunch, with around one quarter of its pupils being students whose first language isn’t English.

“When our kids come, they haven’t had preschool, they haven’t had books at home, they haven’t had the language at home, it’s like we're already behind,” Gallo said. “We’ve got to catch up.”

A drive through the city’s streets shows boarded up buildings in Central Falls’ roughly one square mile, where 25 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

The district has weathered some tough challenges: The lone high school came under a searing national spotlight in 2010 as one of the country’s worst-performing schools, and state budget cuts of nearly $3 million in each of the last two years have led to reducing support staff, such as reading specialists.

Bankrupt city's schools work to prove poverty is no barrier

The city, which filed for bankruptcy last year, does not make contributions to the schools since the area is so impoverished. The state took on full financial responsibility for the schools just over 20 years ago, Gallo said.

The Growing Readers Initiative pilot program began with four classes and now includes all of the district’s K-2 classrooms.

Gone are the rote textbooks that were once staples in Central Falls’ classrooms and still are in others. Now, teachers can choose any literature they think would best fit their students and the daily lessons. They’re also better able to focus in on the reading ability of each student, by grouping them together.

“We've really made it our own, using The Learning Community’s framework and lessons,” said Chenard.

The school district had paid about $100,000 a year to The Learning Community for the program since 2009 when it went to all K-2 classrooms, O’Leary said.

The district can’t pay that this year, so The Learning Community applied for and received a grant from the state education department to cover the funding and continue the partnership, she added.

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The Learning Community said their initiative wasn’t a “solution” to the district’s literacy challenges, emphasizing the constant exchange of ideas between each side.

“It's more than just the actual tools that we shared. It’s more about the collaboration and the work from teacher-to-teacher and the reflections and figuring out ways to help whenever there are obstacles,” said Christine Alves, The Learning Community’s director of external professional development. “I know for a fact … that's where the heart of it all lies, in the collaboration.”

The charter school will expand its work with Central Falls this year to cover standardized test taking, as Rhode Island gears up for the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of educational standards adopted by 45 states that goes into effect in 2014. The work has invigorated Central Falls teachers, who can see the reading program already positively filtering into the students’ learning in other subjects.

“They seem to, for the most part, have more of a love of reading and wanting to read,” said Cheryl Thurber, another second grade teacher at Veterans. “Not wanting to read because I said so, and not wanting to read, because it’s a punishment. They enjoy reading. I genuinely believe they enjoy it.”

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Video: Making a Difference: Public, charter schools form partnership

  1. Transcript of: Making a Difference: Public, charter schools form partnership

    BRIAN WILLIAMS: pleased to have another report from Chelsea Clinton . This time it's good news about educating our kids, and this happened because some adults decided to set aside their differences. You may know about the fierce rivalry between public schools and charter schools in some places. Both of them get their funding from taxpayers, but too often they compete rather than cooperate, in part because while charter schools are public schools , they operate by different rules. But in one Rhode Island town, teachers from both institutions have decided to come together. And as Chelsea Clinton reports, what they've achieved really is making a difference.

    Unidentified Boy #1: The polar bear is the largest member of the bear family.

    CHELSEA CLINTON reporting: In Mrs. Thurber 's second grade classroom in Central Falls , Rhode Island , there's something special going on, and it could change the way kids are taught to read across the country. Here class begins with a lesson on the rug.

    Ms. JILL COTE: Smart readers can use the table of contents...

    CLINTON: There's something called turn and talk time, so everyone is engaged.

    Unidentified Boy #2: What's this thing about the two books?

    Ms. COTE: And sometimes you have to use some of your other reading skills like inferring.

    CLINTON: Kids use reading strategies to help their learning and their comprehension. So what are some of your favorite reading strategies, Ashley ?

    ASHLEY: Sketch it.

    CLINTON: Sketch it. What is sketch it?

    ASHLEY: When you read all the book, you make little pictures .

    CLINTON: And that helps you remember the book?

    Unidentified Girl: It kind of changes it like you're reading a book and a little after it's like something that happened to you before,

    it's......to make like a connection about it.

    Ms. COTE: Because remember we talked about the overview?

    CLINTON: It's not just the strategies that are special, it's how these public school teachers came to use these strategies. It began when they adopted an approach to reading that was working in a local charter school . Lacy, what's your favorite strategy?

    LACY: Retelling.

    CLINTON: What's retelling?

    LACY: You got to tell the teacher the story again.

    Ms. NANCY CHENARD: One of my students did mention that you didn't know anything about retelling.

    CLINTON: I didn't. I didn't. I didn't know retelling. And there were all sorts of things that were novel to me.

    Ms. CHENARD: We've been talking a lot about not...

    CLINTON: Public school teachers Nancy Chenard , Diane Jasper and Cheryl Thurber are working with Learning Community charter school teachers Christine Alves and Jill Cote . This picture of seeing charter school teachers and District Republic schoolteachers is a rare one here in Rhode Island and across the country. Why do you think it is so rare?

    Ms. CHENARD: Sometimes public school teachers can perceive charters as a threat, a threat of resources, of taking resources, of taking personnel, taking jobs. And that is not the kind of relationship that we have.

    Ms. CHERYL THURBER: It wasn't we're a brand-new charter school , we're just going to come in and give you this program because we know it's going to work. They have a similar student population as us.

    Ms. DIANE JASPER: All our fears were put to rest quickly because we all share the same goal, that it's the student achievement , it's getting them to be readers.

    Ms. CHENARD: When we looked at nonfiction books yesterday...

    CLINTON: Gone are the textbooks. Kids choose what they want to read. Class is now twice as long. There's daily independent reading and one-on-one time with the teacher for every student every week.

    LACY: Communicate with others.

    CLINTON: With one another.

    LACY: With one another.

    CLINTON: That's great. Teachers from both systems meet regularly to share ideas and the lesson they're learning in their own classrooms.

    Ms. CHRISTINE ALVES: We just keep it dynamic. We make decisions right there on the spot about how to meet the needs of every single student in the class.

    Ms. THURBER: You have that freedom and that -- your ability to use your professional judgment what's best for those 20 kids in front of you. It goes to the kids who are in the middle, it goes to the kids who are ready to thrive and it goes to the kids who may need a little remediation.

    CLINTON: When the program began three years ago, only 37 percent of kids in kindergarten through second grade were reading at or above the national benchmark. By the end of the first school year, 66 percent were. That's a 29 point jump in just eight months.

    Ms. SARAH FRIEDMAN: That is just an unbelievable accomplishment and something that should be celebrated in this field of education.

    CLINTON: Sarah Friedman and Meg O'Leary are co-founders of the Learning Community charter school where the reading program began. They hope partnerships theirs will become the rule, rather than the exception.

    Ms. MEG O'LEARY: In many ways we've kind of been set up to point the finger at one another or to compete with one another, and there's not time or resources to do that.

    CLINTON: Do you think this is replicable elsewhere in the country?

    Ms. O'LEARY: Absolutely.

    Ms. FRIEDMAN: Yes. Definitely.

    CLINTON: If there could just be one message about why your collaboration together is so critical to the difference you're making for your students, what would it be?

    Ms. JASPER: We're teaching them that in life you have to work together with other people. You have to be able to work towards a common goal.

    Ms. THURBER: Whether you work in a charter school or a private school , our main focus is these kids. And I don't think it matters what kind of building or school you teach in, these kids, for the hours that they're here, are our babies.

    WILLIAMS: Their babies. First of all, welcome back.

    CLINTON: Thank you, Brian .

    WILLIAMS: Second, this town was last in the news for this crushing budget crisis, and how has that affected these reforms?

    CLINTON: Well, the school district and the city itself were declared bankrupt in August. And we learned just last week that 25 percent of the teachers in the district received layoff notices. And when we talked to the superintendent, she said that she thought she'd have to cut 25 percent of her total budget in the next five to seven years, and that she's worried about being able to sustain this program, even in kindergarten through second grade. And she's certainly has had to put on hold her ambitions of expanding it up to fifth grade, which is what she'd initially hoped to do.

    WILLIAMS: And how has the rap on charter schools changed? Am I correct in that their charter originally was to be kind of an incubator for innovation, good ideas?

    CLINTON: That's absolutely right. It's the 20th anniversary of the charter school movement formally, and initially it was very much seen as an incubator for innovation, and then a responsibility for that privilege of then disseminating those innovations across districts. Yet when we talked to the Gates Foundation they said they know of only 16 districts out of almost 16,000 in our country in which this type of real meaningful, productive collaboration is happening.

    WILLIAMS: It'll be nice to see more of it.

    CLINTON: I agree.

    WILLIAMS: Chelsea Clinton , a pleasure.

    CLINTON: Thank you, Brian .

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