At the District 65 School Board meeting on Feb. 17, Demetra Disotuar, literacy director, provided an update on literacy and grammar instruction, against a backdrop of the 2014 student achievement report.

On the 2014 Illinois Standard Achievement Test, 84% of white students met college and career readiness benchmarks in reading, but the percentage of black and Hispanic students who met that benchmark was much less. In addition there has been a downward trend in reading achievement in the last four years.

Other data shows 60% of students enter kindergarten prepared with knowledge about letter knowledge, letter sounds and phonemic awareness, said Ms. Disotuar. The trajectory of students achieving the benchmark for oral accuracy, fluency and comprehension on the DRA test increases between kindergarten and first grade, but turns downward between first and third grades, she said.

For the last few years the District has been transitioning the K-8 literacy curriculum to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), said Ms. Disotuar. “It is the goal of the literacy department to build a comprehensive literacy program that embodies the high expectations of the District 65 community and the CCSS while supporting the varied learners in our classrooms.”

Ms. Disotuar said there were “four areas of need” that the District is focusing on this year.

“One of the areas we are all talking about is ‘what’s happening with our earliest readers?’” Teachers are working with Bill Teale of the University of Illinois at Chicago to develop a more cohesive curriculum and increase vocabulary development for pre-K students, said Ms. Disotuar. The District plans to evaluate instructional approaches that best prepare students for kindergarten and make recommendations about “where we should go next.”

A second area of need “is to create a framework for literacy instruction at the K-2 grades for the emergent, early and transitional readers,” said Ms. Disotuar, and she outlined six strategies to do this. “This is our most critical band of readers,” she said. “If we can really address what’s happening with these students and get the foundation solid, the trajectory for these students up through third grade and on up is going to be much more successful.”

The third area of need is to look at grammar instruction, said Ms. Disotuar, and to evaluate how the District evaluates how well students are mastering grammar.

Fourth, District 65 is implementing disciplinary literacy, which is part of the Joint Literacy Goal with School District 202, said Ms. Disotuar. Using disciplinary literacy, students will be taught to “investigate, reason, read, write, talk and problem solve in the specific ways that practitioners of the discipline [e.g., mathemations, historians, scientists, etc.] do.”

“The nice thing about disciplinary literacy is it pulls all of the curricular departments together,” said Ms. Disotuar. “We have to set the foundation and help students understand what it means to read in different disciplines and prepare them to become more specialized readers and thinkers in specific content areas.”

Arching over these needs is “vocabulary development,” said Ms. Disotuar. Students who lack a strong vocabulary generally do not have a strong foundation for knowledge on which they can build. Students who are more adept and stronger with vocabulary “grow exponentially,” she said, and students who have limited vocabulary grow, but they do not grow at the rate of their peers. “We need to revisit what vocabulary instruction looks like at our earliest years, in our pre-K program and our K-2 program.”

Ms. Disotuar also summarized several programs that were implemented this year. A reading workshop was implemented at fifth grade which ramps up reading and writing so students are prepared to enter sixth grade more successfully. In addition, a small pilot patterned after the fifth-grade reading workshop has been established at seven fourth-grade classrooms.

In addition, the District is piloting the “Making Meaning” program in grades K-2 at six schools. It teaches comprehension strategies, critical thinking and is layered with social and emotional learning. The District is working with consultant Keri Bartholomew of the Developmental Studies Center on the pilot.

The District is continuing efforts to develop students’writing skills and grammar. This year independent grammar assignments are being developed for students.

Questions on Early Literacy

School Board member Suni Kartha asked if there were plans to work with early childhood organizations through the Cradle to Career initiative (C2C) to address the vocabulary needs of children starting at birth.

Ms. Disotuar said, “Vocabulary does start in the home,” and said the District would like to work with early childhood providers who are focusing on the 0-3 age group to help them get books into the home and to help young families to develop their children’s early literacy.

District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said a working committee of the C2C initiative was slated to work on literacy and there was great potential to work with many organizations on this effort. The issue was “teed up,” he said.

Ms. Kartha and Candance Chow asked whether the District is preparing a statement that could be provided to early childhood providers about what District 65 expects in terms of kindergarten readiness and that could be used as a starting point for a community discussion on this issue.

Ms. Disotuar said, “We would like to pursue that.”

John Price, assistant superintendent of schools, added, “We really want to be focused on setting clear benchmarks for the end of second grade, regardless of where children came to us from or what skills that children came to us with. We believe that all children who come to us can be ready by the end of second grade to enter third grade reading at grade level.”

Concerns About Middle School

Board members’ questions about the middle school program ranged from whether the District was doing too much to whether the District was preparing students to read complex texts in ninth grade.

At the middle schools, Ms. Disotuar said, teachers use a “mentor text” or a “shared text” to instruct students to develop their analytical and critical thinking skills. They use “independent reading” to engage students and to increase their frequency of reading. While students may select the texts they read, teachers guide them in making that choice. Ms. Disotuar said, “Teachers are becoming more savvy in helping students challenge themselves. Teachers are becoming much more sensitive to and thoughtful about whether kids are ramping up the books they’re reading from one book to the next over the course of the year.”

When asked by Ms. Chow if the District is on the right path or if it needs to change course, Ms. Disotuar said, “I do believe we are on the right course. We’ve got what best practice says we’ve got to have in place.”

She added she was confident about what’s happening at grades five to eight. “We’re at a place to shift our efforts to K-3,” she said. “Teachers are ready for it.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki questioned whether students were being prepared to read Shakespeare, Dickens and other difficult texts in ninth grade. She said she has heard from ninth-grade teachers that students are not exposed enough to complex texts.

It is anticipated that the Joint District 65/202 Board Committee will consider this issue, with input from ninth-grade teachers at ETHS.

Assessments of Initiatives

Ms. Quattrocki said the Board had asked last year for an assessment of fifth- and eighth-graders knowledge of grammar to determine how well the District was doing in instructing students on grammar. She said she was pushing grammar as an “equity issue” because knowledge of grammar is essential to do well on the ACT, a college entrance exam. She said she would like to see that sort of assessment.

Richard Rykhus asked that the administration lay out how they planned to evaluate each initiative. He said he thought it would be helpful to have benchmarks for each initiative.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...