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About this blog: I am a native of Alameda County, grew up in Pleasanton and currently live in the house I grew up in that is more than 100 years old. I spent 39 years in the daily newspaper business and wrote a column for more than 25 years in add...  (More)

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Split reading sessions are the right choice

Uploaded: Jul 19, 2012
Perhaps the flap from parents about the Pleasanton school district's split reading program is no surprise—it has been almost 20 years since Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through the class-size reduction bill in a time when the state had lots of money.
Logically, small class sizes should result in better instruction. However, when the money shrinks, class sizes will grow—there's little choice for school boards. Personnel costs consume more than 80 percent of the budget and remember that 20-student classes add 50 percent to the expenses.
So, faced with 30 students in elementary school classrooms, district officials reinstituted the split reading. It was the standard approach for decades before Wilson used class-size reduction to avoid sending more money in the California Teachers Association members' salaries.
It is the right move. For kids who already are reading entering kindergarten, it will not make too much of a difference—they'll do just fine.
But, for those who are not reading at grade level, it's absolutely critical they get the individual help to climb toward proficiency. A number of years ago, I volunteered in a one-on-one tutoring program through the Pleasanton Rotary with fourth graders at Donlon School.
This was when third grade classes were 20 students and then jumped by 50 percent or more in fourth grade. Seeing the challenges faced by the below-average readers made it clear that significant intervention to help those students was necessary or they were going to suffer throughout their educational career.
And, it is far more effective the sooner it takes place for below-grade level students.
For nervous parents, I get the challenges with day care. Those must be secondary to the necessity of doing what works educationally. Giving students who struggle with reading the opportunity to improve is critical because there's no more important skill for their educational careers and their lives thereafter.

When the London Olympics open, some Bay Area residents will be wondering what could have been.
A team of Bay Area leaders put together an excellent bid for the 2012 games a decade ago. They unified the three major cities and identified a series of excellent venues that would have staged a remarkable Olympics.
Former long-time Pleasanton resident Helen Mendel was a key part of that group as its marketing director.
When the United States Olympic Committee got down to the final decision in 2002, New York City, coming off the shock and tragedy of 9-11, received the nod and the Bay Area 2012 effort became a memory.
Helen will be among the close observers, while former Olympian Ann Cribbs will be in London. Helen and Ann have staged a number of events since 2002 using the Bay Area Olympics organization umbrella.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Sandy, a resident of Mohr Park,
on Jul 19, 2012 at 8:54 am

Sandy is a registered user.

Tim, I agree that the staggered start plan for K-3 students is well intentioned, and will help to offset the negative effects on students learning to read that are inevitable with increasing class sizes.

As a Barton tutor, I agree that early support for struggling readers is key.

I also want to point out that reading support is just as important for advanced readers as it is for struggling readers. There are children who come to K with a basic grasp of reading, and by the beginning of second grade are yearning to leap into chapter books. In a classroom of 30 students, they can't get much attention from their teachers to help them continue to develop reading skills at their own pace. With staggered reading, more advanced readers can have more time to ask and answer questions about books that challenge and interest them. Teachers will be able to differentiate instruction with the staggered reading groups, and all students benefit from teaching that "meets them where they are."

What I found troubling about the implementation of staggered start is how it was announced. The letter in the backpack on the last day of school definitely caught parents of K-2 students by surprise (and many teachers as well). The district must improve its communications with the public (including both parents and residents without kids in school). The announcement letter was just one more example of the need to do better.

Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger, a resident of Vintage Hills Elementary School,
on Jul 19, 2012 at 9:02 am

Kathleen Ruegsegger is a registered user.

Any thoughts on the impact to the rest of the curriculum with the loss of 45 minutes/day four days a week? Cutting back to what we had 20 years ago, after having added to standards and expectations over that time, seems to be a step in the wrong direction when, as a nation, we are already behind in at least math and science.

I would agree the roll out of this plan was handled poorly. There also was a lack of answers on issues of schedules for siblings.

Posted by Holly Sanders, a resident of Lydiksen Elementary School,
on Jul 19, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Holly Sanders is a registered user.

I agree that the split reading groups are the right choice in our present day of never ending budget cuts from the state that fund the majority of our schools, and the standards remain the same in spite of the forced increase in class sizes. While there is some work to be done on the childcare front (and PUSD has sent out information that shows there is progress in this area), the benefit to all children- regardless of ability - is worth the sacrifices families will need to make. While there will be 40 minutes less of instruction per day, PUSD is still over the required minutes required by the state. And, this small instructional time allows for the reading focus, but also makes it easier for the teachers to have some quality time to know their students better - what their strengths and challenges are, what motivates them, etc. - and this plays out during the remainder each day and the whole school year.

Posted by PToWN94566, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Jul 20, 2012 at 9:33 am

PToWN94566 is a registered user.

Split reading isn't the answer. Teachers don't work one-on-one with the early bird/late bird program, but rather put them in small groups to work with each other. The short amount of time leaves it so that the teacher would literally have 2 minutes of individual time with each student.

What I went through in the 80's isn't relevant today; times have changed tremendously. While it might have been a great program then, it's not anymore. I went through the PUSD and remember having very little science in elementary school. Going to middle school was a nightmare for me because it was like having all these subjects and assignments thrown at me. With this split reading program, it's taking away more time from subjects that have to be addressed.

My other opinion: students need to be held back when they aren't performing. It has been way to easy to let failing students advance to the next grade. Students that are below basic skills in math and ELA should be held back. Since students take the Star test every Spring, teachers have to know what students will score well compared to other students.

(My last opinion: the Star test is a good summative assessment for students. Our standards are aligned to the test, so there's no need for teachers to simply "teach to the test.")

Posted by Sandy, a resident of Mohr Park,
on Jul 22, 2012 at 10:49 am

Sandy is a registered user.

I am very concerned about how the reduced minutes will affect students' depth of learning. Fortunately, we still have science specialists, so I am less worried about science than I am about math and social studies.

It's true that with 15 children in the room for 45 minutes, the teacher does not have much time with each student one-on-one (3 minutes each, times 4 days a week, 12 minutes each week).

However, think of it this way: A skilled teacher can aim to keep 4 groups of 3-4 kids working together mostly independently for 45 minutes. She can also, during those same 45 minutes, can rotate from one group to the next to work actively with 3-4 kids intensively for 10 minutes each. In that scenario, by the end of the week that teacher has spent 40 minutes working with each child in a small group setting.

I hope the district can figure out the issues with childcare. As a starting point, there could be one classroom open at each school with a "yard duty" staffer during the first 45 minutes and last 45 minutes for any 1st-3rd graders. Maybe parents could organize a "homework club".

Even better would be if those 90 minutes at the beginning and end of the day could be individualized interventions (like Barton, but not just for students reading below grade level; also for math for students who need extra support or extra challenge like GATE students). Perhaps that could be offered on an as-needed basis, with a hybrid funding model (some district funds, some donations).

Perhaps something better can be negotiated for 2013-14... I hope so.

On the other hand, perhaps things will keep getting worse. My understanding is that the PE specialists were only reinstated for 1 year. This is connected to the staggered start schedule because the elimination of PE specialists would push PE instruction into core teaching time more, and the calculation of instructional minutes would not make the staggered start legal from the state perspective.

So financially what we have been able to retain for this year is still at risk for next year. If the state measures fail in November, and/or PPIE does not meet its fundraising goals (part of elementary donations this coming year is intended to fund PE specialists), then even the staggered start may not be possible financially.

Worst case scenario? The most affordable approach... Eliminate collaboration time, eliminate all specialists, cut prep time for teachers and put it after the end of the school day, and on Friday, we could just have a half day every week. This might or might not be easier for parents to manage logistically. It would definitely decrease the quality of learning for students. Let's hope we're not headed further down that slippery slope.

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