After the bell rang, Nancy Best told the students to set a goal for their reading speed.
“Check your tracking sheets, look at your time, set a goal for yourself – maybe 10 words higher than yesterday and maybe 25 higher than at the beginning of the week,” she said.
The middle school students drew a line on a graph they keep in their binders that shows whether they are improving. They’ve been reading the same passage all week, so most kids’ scores rise steadily as they become more familiar with the passage. They’ll start a new passage next week; the hope is that each week they’ll read the new passage a little bit faster.
Darion Gonzalez couldn’t quite finish reading a short passage before his minute was up. “Dang it, that was bad,” he said. He read 207 words in a minute, down from 214 the day before but up from 167 on Monday and well above where he needed to be.
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So this would be one of his last days in class: Darion’s teachers decided he was ready to be moved into a higher-level comprehension class.
Sixth-graders are supposed to be able to read 160 words per minute with 98 percent accuracy. When they can do that six weeks in a row, they move into a different room.
There isn’t any time to waste at Hamilton Middle School, where many students arrive several years behind where they should be academically. Hamilton used to switch students into new classes at the end of every semester but now, as soon as students are ready, they’ll move them.
Hamilton is the lowest-performing middle school in the district on state tests, but it’s been showing the largest gains the past few years on district tests. Instead of 2 out of every 5 students, now 3 out of 5 students are performing at grade level. To do that, Hamilton has had to become an expert at helping kids who are behind.
The school doubled-down on remediation work: Every student would now be able to get additional help in both math and English, so they could fill in their learning gaps, while not falling further behind.
The school hired more English and math teachers and fewer science and social studies teachers.
The principal rearranged schedules, alternating periods for English and math interventions so there would be a teacher’s assistant in every class. And they had to offer all three levels each period so that as a student improved, he or she could move up right away without changing their whole schedule.
The students in Best’s class are struggling readers and were placed together because they are all struggling in the same way. They are not the lowest readers, who still need to learn how to recognize and pronounce words correctly. Nor are they emerging readers, who need strategies to deepen their understanding.
This group is in the middle, where the focus is on fluency. They can pronounce most words, but they’re a little slow. Students who read slowly can become frustrated and give up. Or it will take them so long that, by the time they’ve finished, they’ll have forgotten what they read.
The focus isn’t just on drills. Fridays in Best’s classroom are set aside for spoken poetry.
The class split into three groups to rehearse a poem. Darion’s group was the last to perform in front of the class.
Unlike most of the students, he added gestures as he read: When he read “hand, heart and brain,” he moved his hand dramatically to each part of the body. And he snapped and even pretended to ride a horse as he read the poem about the Old West.
The students laughed.
In that moment, Darion’s improvement wasn’t just an abstract line on a page; he was good at reading, and that meant he could impress the other kids in the room.
Middle school students often focus on socializing rather than academics, according to Principal Justin Kasel. Even some students who have shown the most improvement said their biggest obstacle was staying focused when they had friends in the same class.
Sundale Buggs, a basketball player, improved from 139 words per minute to 181 in the past year and was moved into the top-level class.
“At first I was shocked, like ‘Dang, I never knew I could do this,’ ” Sundale said. “But I got more confidence I could do this; I can keep going up and up.”
He wasn’t worried about being teased for being in the lower class.
This is part of the school culture, Kasel said. “I’ve worked in other schools where there would be a stigma to be in an intervention class. That doesn’t exist here at all,” he said. “I’ve never seen kids who think they are better. I don’t think they even realize that they are.”
One of the reasons for this supportive culture is that many of the teachers at Hamilton like working there – not in spite of the fact that many students are behind but because of it; they came to the school to make a difference.
“They don’t look at kids that need intervention like they are second-class citizens,” Kasel said. “They don’t look at them any different than anyone else. I’ve worked in places where kids who need extra help, people don’t want to work with them. This isn’t that kind of place.”
The focus on remediation can add extra challenges for teachers. It means they often have to adjust lessons for multiple levels of students. And it means they often have to prepare for three classes every day instead of one or two.
The teachers who work at Hamilton – and who are successful once there – talk about their work with a sense of mission.
Melinda Mutuku was ready to move up to a regional manager position with Pizza Hut. She was working long hours and being recognized for her work.
But she went to Mass one day and felt a calling to move her life in a different direction. “In the homily, I felt God talking to me, and I started crying right there,” she said. She talked to her husband that night, cried again and then set about training to become a teacher.
Since then, she has become one of Hamilton’s best math teachers, Kasel said, and has even trained to become a principal. “I loved what I did prior to being a teacher,” she said. “This is just more fulfilling.”
Amanda Nickles, a first-year teacher, trained as a reading intervention specialist. She said she applied to Hamilton because she knew half of her classes would be focused on teaching basic reading skills to kids who needed it.
Teaching herself out of a job
Many teachers try to work their way up to administrative jobs, in part because it can be so exhausting to teach. But Trisha Jensen left her job as an instructional coach in Derby so she could teach again – at Hamilton.
She recently rearranged her room so that it’s full of bean bags and couches in addition to desks and chairs. She saw how her daughters liked to work at home and wanted to create a space that was more inviting.
During a recent intervention class, after reading a play together at desks, her four students rushed to their favorite comfy spots.
There used to be 11 students in that class, but most of them had moved on. One of the results of being an excellent teacher is that, the better she does, the fewer students she has. Some of the upper-level classes are much larger, she said.
Of the four students in that class, she said, two have shown significant gains. One of the other students has a learning disability; he read so softly, his voice was hardly audible. It was difficult to imagine him reading in a large class without getting frustrated.
Another student transferred to Hamilton a few weeks before. Later that day, with a less-experienced teacher, the girl goofed off in the corner.
But in Jensen’s class, she was calm. When she started to go off on a tangent about the Boys and Girls Club, Jensen just used it as an example and kept the lesson going.
There was no time to waste.
The Wichita Eagle series Our Changing Schools is spending extra time in four Wichita public schools this year, including Hamilton, to show how the city’s schools are adapting to prepare a new generation of students.