Teachers, principal say staff changes, mind-set make the difference

Seven-year-old Miguel Gomez races through the words like they are on fire.

'Koela hummed a happy tune as he left his father's farm,' he reads, leaning intently over his book, his index finger tracing the words. 'It was a fine summer morning in Hawaii. The sky was blue. The grass was green. The air smelled of sweet' a slight pause as he turns a new word over and around in his head 'blossoms.' Then, he's off again: 'Koela watched the people going to work in the coffee lands É '

And he will proudly read on until you tell him to stop.

Last September, when Miguel came to Rigler Elementary School on Northeast 54th Avenue and Prescott Street from California, he could read three words in English.

Today, his teacher says, the second-grader can 'sight-read' read without sounding out about 250.

And Miguel isn't alone in this classroom either in how far he was behind in his learning, or how far he has come.

English as a foreign language

Almost four in 10 of Rigler's students who ended their school year this week come from families who don't speak English in their home, the highest proportion of any elementary school in the Portland district. Eight out of 10 come from families poor enough that they qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Three out of four of Rigler's students are minorities.

Schools with those sort of statistics in Portland and throughout the nation struggle, and most often fail, to teach students who can be years behind where they should be in their learning.

Rigler is different.

While test scores show that almost all of Rigler's students are learning 86 percent of fifth-graders met state reading standards last year, for instance, compared with 80 percent for the school district as a whole the scores show Rigler's Latino and English-as-a-second-language students doing exceptionally well.

Three years ago, 40 percent of the school's ESL third-graders met state benchmarks in reading. Last year, 80 percent of those same kids met benchmarks as fifth-graders. And last year, 93 percent of Rigler's Latino fifth-graders met reading benchmarks, compared with 62 percent of Latino fifth-graders across the district.

'I just think it's a great example of a school with incredible challenges É which, when the right pieces are in place, can make dramatic changes for children in learning in quite a short amount of time,' says Cynthia Guyer, head of the Portland Schools Foundation.

The schools foundation and the Portland Trail Blazers gave the school a Trail Blazer Award this spring, an award given annually to high-poverty schools that do exceptionally well in teaching their students.

Staff change spurs progress

Rigler teachers and Lori Clark, the school's principal for the last three years, say Rigler's results derive from a mix of factors.

For one thing, school leaders and teachers decided three years ago to change how some of the special teachers were used, Clark says. These are teachers assigned to the school because of its high number of students who are poor and learning the English language.

Instead of the teachers working one-on-one in short sessions with struggling and ESL students, the teachers became part of the entire Rigler teaching pool, which allowed the school to have smaller classes, and to have as many as three adult staff teachers or teachers' assistants in reading classes of 30 or so students.

The change provides all Rigler students with 60 minutes of uninterrupted reading in small groups every day, Clark says. It also means that ESL students, especially, aren't constantly pulled way from regular classes to work in one-on-one sessions with teachers or teaching assistants sessions that had not proved to be very effective, teachers say.

Teachers constantly assess how students are doing and shift them to different small groups as they improve or their learning seems to stall.

But as much as anything, Clark and Rigler teachers say, the students' successes are attributed to the expectations of the adults around them.

Excuses don't cut it

Too often, teachers believe that students from poor families or from families who don't speak English in their home can't learn well, says Patty LeRoy, who has been an ESL teacher at Rigler for five years.

Throughout her teaching career, 'there were a lot of excuses made for kids not progressing,' Leroy says.

Teachers don't use those excuses at Rigler, she says.

'I think more and more, we have staff here who strongly believe that every child can learn,' LeRoy says. 'If we have those high expectations for the kids É I think that's why they're meeting those benchmarks, because we believe that they can.'

'When children feel loved, they can do incredible things.'

Guyer said she believes that some of the changes, and changes in attitude, at Rigler relate directly to Clark.

'If you looked at the (student) achievement data, you would see there was a marked change when Lori came in,' she says.

Guyer also believes that teachers at the school 'started to challenge their own beliefs É that these children at this school can learn at much, much higher levels than they have been.'

'I think she's instilled that kind of new belief system and culture within the school.'

Other schools could learn

Like Miguel, Jesus Wright will read enthusiastically to any visitor to his classroom, Jill Callicotte's second-grade classroom in a small portable building next to the main Rigler school building.

Jesus is ahead of Miguel in his reading far ahead of many of his classmates, in fact.

'They say when I get to college, I'll be 10 years old,' Jesus says, smiling proudly.

'I'm proud of reading,' he says, after he's read several pages aloud in his book. 'I just like to learn a lot.'

Gloria Wright, Jesus' mother, says she's sometimes amazed at how much and how quickly Jesus has learned since coming to Rigler as a kindergartner. 'It makes me happy,' she says. 'Instead of asking me stuff, I have to ask him.'

'Some people might not understand how much these parents want for their children,' Callicotte says.

'They want to be pushed hard,' Rigler first-grade teacher Sherri Grewell says of the students. 'And we're doing a disservice to the family if we expect less from them.'

Guyer says that attitude is prevalent at high-poverty schools that do well.

And those schools, like Rigler, have other common components as well: a strong principal, a curriculum that's consistent from grade to grade, and teachers who work together to constantly assess how their students are doing and adjust accordingly.

'If it works, and we know it works É how come the system isn't making sure that this stuff happens in every school?' Guyer asks. 'I think that's the issue for the school system and the community.'