All hands on deck

Donahoe E.S. second-grade teacher Ashley Roop works with five students during a small group guided reading exercise. (Photo by Tom Lappas/Henrico Citizen)
The sound that fills the hallway at Donahoe Elementary School in Sandston is a familiar one – a deep rumbling tone, growing louder as it approaches. The thunder is coming, like clockwork, and with it, a flood.

Second-graders, well-trained in how to respond to this approaching wave, divide themselves, find their chairs and hunker down together in small groups. The time has arrived.

It's time to read.


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Donahoe is one of three Eastern Henrico elementary schools piloting an approach to literacy that is new to the county. This guided reading program – also known as the "flood-in" model – is designed to help students improve their reading and comprehension abilities more rapidly than traditional methods.

It is championed by educator Jan Richardson, whose plans and workbooks the three schools are using to train teachers and teach students.

The general philosophy of the “Jan Plan” approach is simple: engage every student every day in intensive reading and comprehension, through small-group instruction.

That can be difficult in traditional classroom settings, because one teacher can only work with a limited number of students at a time. But the flood-in model makes it possible to reach every student.

Classroom teachers, Title I instructors, reading specialists, resource teachers, school interventionists and special education teachers "flood in" to the second-grade classrooms at Donahoe all at once – some pushing their "rolling thunder" carts of supplies – and each is paired for 30 minutes with a group of four to six students, on average.

Whereas in a traditional approach, a teacher might pull together a few students who are struggling with reading and work with them together (while other students are left to read on their own), the flood-in model provides all students – regardless of their reading level – with focused daily instruction.

"In this model, we can group them more accordingly," says Lynn Smith, Henrico County Public Schools' language arts specialist, as she surveys a second-grade classroom at Donahoe on a recent afternoon. Here, one group of students is practicing sight words, while another is working to determine what might happen next in a story students are reading aloud. And in the corner, six students are spelling words on their hand-held whiteboards.

Richardson's philosophy is that students must be engaged in their texts in oder to solve problems, Smith says. This approach makes that engagement much more likely, and it's evident at Donahoe.

"It's changed our instruction completely," says Donahoe's assistant principal, Kate Puschak. "Our teachers love it – we can't wait to do it at every grade level."

That could happen as soon as the coming school year.

"We've trained a lot of people on this," Puschak says.

Progress ‘you don’t typically see’
Henrico's Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Beth Teigen, who joined the system last April from Chesterfield County Public Schools, helped introduce the flood-in model here. She was familiar with its use at Chesterfield's Bensley Elementary, where it has proved successful for nearly a decade.

Donahoe, Glen Lea and Highland Springs elementaries – schools that have not met accreditation standards in English during recent years and that serve a higher percentage of at-risk and low-income students – were selected to pilot the model in Henrico. A team of HCPS officials visited Bensley to observe the program in action, and then teachers from the three Henrico schools did the same.

Donahoe began implementing the new approach in November in second grade only, while third-grade students at Glen Lea and Highland Springs began using it shortly thereafter.

At each school, students are divided into groups according to their reading levels, as determined by the grade-level teachers and reading specialists.

There are 26 guided reading levels – one for each letter of the alphabet – and in traditional classes, students advance one level about every six to nine weeks, Smith says. But so far at Donahoe, they've been progressing much more quickly. Almost all second-graders in the program advanced a level after just three weeks of the new model, Smith says.

"That type of progress, you don't typically see," she says.

In addition to the small-group approach, students also spend another hour during the same block of time reading as a class or individually. Separately each day, they spend 30 minutes working on their writing.

During Smith's recent visit to Donahoe, students so well-versed in the program after only a few months, have gathered in their designated groups to begin reading before their teachers even arrive.

Later, at one table, students say the word "hockey" aloud, then practice spelling it. At another, a resource teacher works with students to help them determine the meaning of a word based on its usage and context.

"Mike borrowed $2 from Derek – and he still had $23 left," she says, reading to her small group from a workbook. "What do you think borrowed means?"

The three schools were logical choices for the pilot program, Smith says, because as Title I schools, each already had reading specialists and interventionists in the building. It took some creative scheduling by the principals of each school to rearrange teacher and instructor schedules, but the work is already paying off.

"They've seen tremendous gains in second grade [at Donahoe]," Smith says, "and both their third- and first-grade teachers want in with this model."

‘It’s been wonderful for us’
The pilot program hasn't cost the school system any extra money from a staffing perspective – "right now, they're just making it work with with current staff that they have," Smith says.

Expansion of the program to other schools – especially those that don't have extra staff members already in the building – likely would require funding that has not yet been identified. Even expanding it to all grade levels within the three schools – as Donahoe administrators hope to do – will require more supplies and manpower, but Puschak is confident that her school can overcome both obstacles.

Another part of the program is its "book in every backpack" approach, Smith says, which ensures that every student goes home with a book from the library or from class every day. That has helped foster an interest in, and even a love of, reading for students.

The program – implemented between noon and 1:30 at Donahoe – also has produced an unintended side-effect at the school.

"Having this models helps quash the typical afternoon behavior issues," Puschak says. "The kids love it, the teachers love it – it's been wonderful for us."

* * *

Donations to assist with the literacy programs at Donahoe, Glen Lea or Highland Springs may be made to each school individually or directed to a specific school through a donation to the Henrico Education Foundation (henricofoundation.org, or 804-652-3869).
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September 2017
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Home School Day at Henricus Historical Park will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Students ages 4-14 will work with colonists as they set up their militia, economy and way of life in the re-created colonial citie. Students will also learn how the native inhabitants, the Powhatan Indians, organized their successful and widespread society. Students will be divided by age level to work on age-appropriate activities and curriculum. Registration is required by Sept. 4 by calling 318-8797. Full text

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