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Named a “Breakthrough School” in 2014 and a “School of Opportunity” for 2015, Sleepy Hollow High School, located in the suburbs of New York City, has 890 students and supports a diverse population. 

Principal Carol Conklin-Spillane and her faculty were continually frustrated with the large number of students entering high school who were significantly below grade level in reading. Staff also reported concerns with minimal academic vocabulary and poor reading comprehension, plus bigger issues like avoidance behaviors, poor attendance, and missing homework assignments.

Because Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Personnel Colleen Carroll had a deep passion for literacy at the secondary level, she and Conklin-Spillane agreed to focus on providing ongoing professional development for teaching reading. They employed a two-teacher team to work with at-risk students as a way to improve attendance, strengthen achievement, and decrease disciplinary infractions. 

The Team

The intervention, called The Humanities Team, targets support to incoming students who were likely to fail ninth grade and were at risk of dropping out. Students were selected for The Humanities Team based on a history of poor academic performance, behavior infractions, suspensions, and attendance issues. As part of the program, one social studies and one English teacher were paired together and shared the same students for two years, meeting with them daily. 

Weekly Meetings

Teachers John Cincotta and Linda Stempel, along with their teaching assistant, agreed to work with Carroll each Monday morning for an hour. To begin, Carroll had them read Cris Tovani’s book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? During their meetings, the group discussed one chapter at a time and implemented the strategies in the classroom that they learned each week. 

The teachers tried the new techniques in class and documented how the students were doing. Over the course of the year, everyone learned and practiced strategies such as how to visualize, how to know when students are not comprehending what they are reading (and what to do about it), and what to do when kids come across a word they don’t understand. The teaching assistant supported learning in these classes and traveled to the students’ math and science classes as needed. This person also worked one hour past dismissal to assist students with homework, and the teaching assistant spoke Spanish, which helped to strengthen home/school communication.

Learning Tricks and Tips

Cincotta and Stempel used Tovani’s graphic organizers, such as the Double Entry and Quad Entry Diaries, personalizing them to ensure their students’ success. For example, the teachers realized that students felt overwhelmed by too many words on a page, so they turned the page lengthwise and made the font size bigger. This helped students in their persistence; they seemed to find reading easier and would give up less quickly. Since lack of perseverance was high on the list of problems the teachers had cited, this one new technique made a huge difference in student success. 

Stempel began putting different worksheets on colored paper, noticing color seemed to pique reader interest. Vocabulary went on green paper, and reading on yellow. Students were also much better organized using this system. Stempel now uses color to distribute group assignments. This immediately allows both the teacher and students to know what group they should be in. (To ensure groups are different each time, she mixes up the colors her students have for each assignment.) Not only does the colored paper help with student performance, Stempel notices that student behavior is far more on task now with this system in place. 

During one Monday morning conversation, the discussion turned toward the use of images. Cincotta decided to use images to help the students better understand their social studies reading passages. In addition to colored paper turned lengthwise, Cincotta added images to both his scaffolded reading assignments as well as in the Double Entry and Quad Entry Diaries. Students use these images to help jog their memory and anchor their ideas. Cincotta chooses images thoughtfully to ensure they truly help the reading rather than confuse students. He also teaches students how to annotate an image, so that they spend time analyzing it as part of the reading. They learn to record their thoughts and ask questions alongside the image, so that they can go back later to see if the reading helped answer their questions or clear up their thinking. This work paid enormous dividends in the way students comprehended and interacted with the text. 

Making It Relevant

Students became comfortable with the techniques and strategies over time, since they knew the purpose behind every assignment. This allowed students to relax in class—their nervousness greatly lessened. Since performance anxiety in high school often manifests in poor attendance and behavior issues, this new level of comfort, understanding, and independence prompts students to come to class more often and participate, instead of checking out or fooling around. The teachers say the difference is profound. “Students hardly ever ask anymore, ‘Why are we doing this?'” Stempel says. “I haven’t heard that in a long while because now we make the purpose crystal clear.” Colleagues are noticing the improvements in students and are asking for guidance to inform their practice as well. Cincotta and Stempel have streamlined these techniques so that they’re easy to teach at department meetings. “Their efforts have spread around the school. Now other teachers are asking to learn about teaching reading too,” Conklin-​Spillane says. 

Stempel and Cincotta strive to make learning relevant to each student by connecting something familiar with what is new. For example, in reading the book The Contender, Stempel facilitates discussions on making smart choices and accepting consequences. By using the story as a catalyst for this important discussion, and including the reading strategies they learned to understand and analyze it, the students get both character-building lessons and improved literacy. 

The Payoff

With the new data, the teachers were able to compare their students’ results before and after they implemented the strategies, and also compare them to past years’ student scores. In addition, they looked at behavior and attendance records. The results were amazing. On the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests, every student made at least one year’s growth in nine months’ time, and several made up to four years growth in that time (past years’ scores show that on average, students did not make one year’s growth in the same timeframe). Student behavior problems greatly decreased, with minor infractions becoming nonexistent. Unexcused absences dropped 50 percent. When students were asked what they liked about class now, they said they felt successful because they now understood what was going on in class. 

Lessons Learned

Oftentimes we are so busy searching for complex solutions to compelling problems that we overlook the power of a small-scale, targeted intervention. Keep in mind that solutions don’t have to be cost-prohibitive. For example, the personnel used to monitor in-school suspension at Sleepy Hollow was eliminated and used to fund the teaching assistant assigned to the Humanities Team. By providing ongoing, specialized training in reading within content area coursework, the team impacted the learning potential of at-risk students, decreased their behavior management needs, and empowered students and teachers alike.  

Sidebar: PL Pointers

Design programs that explicitly teach necessary tools for academic success-the most powerful way to improve behavior is to improve achievement. 

Take advantage of in-house expertise to avoid costly consultants.

Identify patterns of need and create niche programs to reach students with relevant curriculum and to engage caring, knowledgeable adults.

Personalize professional development by asking teachers what they need; find ways to help them meet the challenges they face.

Sustain professional development over time, allowing teachers the opportunity to explore ideas, implement, reflect, and adjust new approaches to make them their own. 

Collect data to document your strategies’ impact.

Reallocate resources to support learning rather than manage misbehavior.

Colleen Carroll, EdD, is assistant superintendent of schools in the public schools of Tarrytown, NY.

Carol Conklin-Spillane is principal at Sleepy Hollow High School in Tarrytown, NY.