New W-M intervention program aims to promote literacy

Watertown-Mayer students who lag significantly behind their peers when it comes to reading skills and comprehension have been making great strides in recent months thanks to a new reading intervention program.

Read 180, an intensive 90-minute per-day, five-day per week program, is intended to help students who are numerous grade levels behind their peers when it comes to reading. Kashia Grosser, one of two Read 180 teachers at the middle school, said the school’s goal is for each student in the program to gain 180 Lexile points for every year in the program, or the equivalent of about two grade levels every year.

Some students have already soared right past that number, even though the program was only implemented at Watertown-Mayer midway through this school year. Grosser said eight students had gone up at least 50 points in the first quarter alone, and that one student had gone up 248 points.

Kyle Jensen, who teaches the Read 180 class in the high school, said he’s seen similar results. He said several students have shown gains of 300 Lexile points already, or the equivalent of several grade levels in a single quarter. Two students who started in the program have already caught up to grade level and have moved out of the program.

“I think it’s going really well,” Jensen said. “The kids have done a very good job of buying into it and want to get results out of it.”

Administrators in the Watertown-Mayer district say the program was much needed. The Read 180 program was originally launched this year for students who qualify for special education, but the plan for this summer and next school year is to begin offering the program for any student that struggles with reading.

While the overwhelming majority of students in the Watertown-Mayer district read at or above grade level, Special Education Director Mike Piersak said it was crucial to take steps to address the needs of those who don’t. He said past efforts have been unsuccessful, so it was important to find an intervention program to keep students from falling any further behind.

“When we started looking at data, we saw a substantial number of students that were not making reasonable progress in the area of literacy,” Piersak said. “They were becoming more and more discrepant from their peers. The interventions the district had in place were not narrowing that discrepancy. That discrepancy was widening.”

Middle School principal Nick Guertin, a big proponent of the new program, described it as a reading initiative rather than a special education initiative. He said that as the program is expanded to include the general student body, the goal is to intervene early and prevent students from falling ever further behind their peers. Rather than waiting for a student to fail to the point that they qualify for special education and then trying to correct the problems, Guertin said the goal should be to take small steps now instead of trying to take giant steps in the future.

“When we see kids heading down that path, we’re trying to have this strong intervention right off the bat,” Guertin said.

As the program grows in the Watertown-Mayer district, it will focus mainly on the middle school, to make sure students are reading at grade level as they reach high school. But, seeing as it is a new program, it’s played an important role in the high school so far as well. Piersak said it was important for those students to read proficiently not just to excel in school, but in life after school as well.

“If you can’t read, you won’t do well in other classes,” Piersak said. “Maybe you’ll get by because other teachers are accommodating your needs, but I’m not sure who’s going to accommodate them when you leave school.

“How can you graduate a kid that can’t read? You can do all the accommodations you want, but why not stress the importance of reading? Sure, you can accommodate kids, but when they’re 21 years old, who’s going to read to them?”

The Read 180 program may have a documented history of success — including early signs of rapid progress in Watertown — but it isn’t cheap, either. The school board, upon recommendations from Piersak and Guertin, recently purchased 45 licenses at a cost of roughly $1,000 apiece, meaning 45 students may participate in the program at any given time. The cost is a one-time expense, however, so the licenses can be used for whichever students the district wants, and students can be rotated in or out of the program depending on their needs or progress.

Guertin believes so strongly in the program that he has already begun re-working the entire middle school schedule into a block format to accommodate the 90-minute Read 180 sessions. He said he was thankful the school board also bought into the importance of a reading intervention program.

“We’re very fortunate that our school board said we’re going to step into this and try this,” said Guertin, who added that about 20 percent, or 60-80 students, come into the middle school each year that read somewhere behind their current grade level. “The middle school hasn’t had, up to this point, a very clear literacy intervention program. This brings that piece into our building.”

The challenge with a reading intervention program is that often, many of the students harbor negative attitudes toward reading, or simple dislike it. But several of the Watertown-Mayer teachers said that after overcoming early uneasiness about the program, most students have embraced it.

“It the beginning it was a little bit difficult,” Grosser said, “because they’re middle school students coming into a classroom with different routines that may seem a little elementary-schoolish to some students. But a majority of them are starting to come along, especially when they see their growth.”

At the high school, Piersak said Jensen may face a bigger challenge in keeping the students engaged and convincing them why it’s important for them to be there. However, Piersak said he thinks Jensen has done a good job getting that message across, and Jensen also said the students are embracing the class.

“I think at first some of them were like, ‘What is this class?’” Jensen said. “We worked on making sure the kids feel comfortable and get as much out of it as possible.”

The Read 180 class is broken down into five separate portions, with the students rotating between them. Each class starts with a group lesson for the day, and then the students split into groups. One station works on small group time, continuing to work from the workbook on the day’s lesson. Another group spends 20 minutes working on a Read 180 computer program, and another group spends 20 minutes reading a book that has been identified at their level.

Piersak said the books are tailored specifically for the program because they are written about topics that will interest a certain age group, but at a level they will understand. The students do not simply read “children’s books,” because that would likely not keep them engaged or interested.

Grosser and Jensen both said the time the students spend on the computer program is especially useful, because the teacher receives instant feedback and scores. If a teacher sees that several students are struggling in the same areas with the same types of comprehension problems, they can be grouped together on certain days to work on those specific skills.

“All that data comes to my computer, so I can see what the class needs to work on,” Grosser said. “I can find material during small group time that works to those skills. It’s very nice to pinpoint the exact type of comprehension difficulties each student is having.”

Jensen said he thinks the program will produce significant benefits for the district and its students as it continues to develop.

“I’m excited we got it,” he said. “I think it’s a great tool, and I’m looking forward to seeing the progress we make.”


Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]