Castle Heights Moves to Complete Year With Testing and Growth in Learning

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At the first of this school year Castle Heights Principal Chris Winfree stood for a photo in front of thousands of leveled books that the school had received for the new reading program. Now that programs benefits have been proven as progress in reading skills have soared throughout the year.

Carbon School District Press Release

The long stretch between Presidents Day and spring break is always a busy one for schools and Castle Heights Elementary’s activities and learning tasks were no different this year.

“It’s the longest period of time in the school year without a break,” said Castle Heights Principal Chris Winfree. “But, it’s a good time because it is the time we are getting ready for testing, so it is the crunch time academically for teachers to be sure the students are ready. Since the testing has now gone to the RISE system from SAGE, there are some further challenges.”

All schools have faced testing on the RISE (Readiness Improvement Success Empowerment) this year. Schools have been scrambling to understand and use the new system that the Utah State Board of Education has introduced.

“With the SAGE system (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence), we did assessments at the beginning of the year, in the middle of the year and towards the end so we could measure growth and set growth goals,” said Winfree. “We have not had that opportunity with RISE yet. We are doing everything we can to get the students ready for the end-of-year testing regardless.”

For Winfree, he said their big focus and the excitement for the year has been the district-wide leveled reading program.

“We have worked hard to get kindergarten and first grade students to get where they need to be on phonics and we have seen amazing growth at every grade level on reading,” he said. “For example, we have one fifth grader who has jumped 18 levels since the first of the year. That student went from a first grade reading level to where he should have been at the beginning of fifth grade and by the end of the year, he will be at grade level.”

While not all growth has been as dramatic as that example, the growth throughout the school with the reading program has been phenomenal.

“We have seen similar things all over the school,” he stated. “With the first grade, it has been awesome to watch because the students are not only where they are supposed to be on reading, but also on phonics. We want to send all of them off to the second grade with all of the phonics skills they will need to know. There, we can reinforce the phonics skills and then work on their reading level improvement.”

But, Winfree said what he is most excited to see isn’t what kind of reading levels are attained by the end of the year, but how those readings skills “translate to growth in math and science.”

“The data shows that if students improve their reading skills, their math and science skills grow as well,” he explained. “Much of what students get when it comes to math and science is word problems and while they may understand the formula for working out a problem, they struggle trying to pull the information they need to do so out of a word problem. In the past, some students got test problems wrong in both math and science not because they didn’t know the math or science process, but because they couldn’t read.”

Winfree said that the reading levels program has brought a renewed energy about learning in his school, but some of the program has had to be modified in some areas.

“In kindergarten, the students usually don’t have all the phonics skills they need to read some of the the levels assigned to that grade until the end of the year,” he said. “Students may be able to read and understand 75 percent of the words, but others, they don’t even know how to sound out. So, we have adapted books to fit the phonics level that has been taught so it fits with what they know, then the kids are reading material with comfort and confidence.”

Winfree said that he understands that some people outside of schools do not get how important it is to have students in a classroom working at the same reading levels. Bringing students up to a fifth grade level and sending them on to the middle schools with that level of reading will make teaching there so much more successful because classes at that level are taught for content areas, such as history, science, business, etc. When they attend school there, the assumption is that all students can comprehend what they need to read.

“If you have a classroom with 25 students and there are only eight or nine at a fifth grade reading level and all the text that is presented to them to learn about that subject is written at that level, most of the class is not prepared to read about what they are being taught,” he said. “No one can modify what those students need to read into various levels so they can understand it. Consequently, there is frustration at all levels and students are bored. That is why it is important that we drive to get these kids up to the level where they should be.”

He also pointed out that there were many students who came to school this year with their reading levels where they should be. The levels system has helped them to surpass where they should be for their age and grade level, so the program is not only helping the students who struggle with reading, but making others excel at it as well.

Under the leveled system, for a student to advance to the next group, they need to be able to read accurately 90 percent of the time and understand what they read at an 80 percent clip.

“Just because a student can sound out the words does not mean what they are reading is appropriate for their level,” he stated. “They need to understand and comprehend what they are reading. That level of achievement gives a student confidence in themselves and their abilities.”

He said behavior problems in the school have decreased this year as well and he attributes that to the fact that so many students are now at a place where they are not bored and can follow along with what is going on in class.

As May comes to completion, there is a lot going on with field trips that are tied to academics at the school as well. Trips include such things as fourth graders going fossil hunting because that is what they have been studying this year. Also, the fifth grades will be going to a Salt Lake Bee’s game in conjunction with their DARE graduation and they are also going to the state capitol building because they have been studying government and the constitution this year.

“It’s important to expose the students to things outside of the building that relate to what they are learning here,” he concluded.

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