COMMERCE CITY – Fourth-grade teacher Nora Mendoza is nearly out of breath as she bounces from desk to desk working with students at Kemp Elementary School on a spelling exercise.
She asks her students to come up with words that have the ‘ey’ sound in them. ‘Pulley’ and ‘key,’ they answer back.
Between assignments, Mendoza turns her attention to the half-dozen of her students who are in bilingual education.
‘Todos los que habla espanol vaya aqui en frente,’ she says, asking the Spanish-speaking kids to come to the front of the class for their assignment.
Mendoza doesn’t waste any opportunity to teach her 22 fourth-graders. For a school with a high rate of poverty and student mobility, every second is precious.
The hard work of Mendoza and other teachers at Kemp paid off big time for this school in Adams County School District 14. Kemp’s fourth-graders were among the most improved in the entire state on the recent Colorado reading and writing tests.
‘The entire staff has been working so hard on literacy,’ said Kemp Principal Wanda Clark. ‘This was truly a team effort.’
Kemp Elementary was cited by Gov. Bill Owens and Colorado Commissioner of Education Bill Moloney for its significant improvement in reading since statewide testing began three years ago. Also cited was Bessemer Elementary School in Pueblo District 60.
Both Bessemer and Kemp are in districts that also showed considerable improvement despite high poverty and student mobility rates. Those factors are often cited by educators as major obstacles to learning.
‘Because they are not in the richest districts in the state,’ Owens said, ‘these schools prove that any school can succeed.’
The percentage of fourth-graders at Kemp who were proficient or better in reading went up from 12 percent in 1997 to 56 percent in 1999. Bessemer fourth-graders improved from 12 percent in reading in 1997 to 74 percent this year.
The two schools share one common philosophy: Literacy is the focus. ‘Everything we do at Bessemer ties in with reading and writing in some way,’ Bessemer Principal Gary Trujillo said.
A special reading program called ‘Lindamood-Bell’ was introduced at Bessemer last year and was so successful that it is now being introduced at 10 other schools in the district.
The program emphasizes the senses. Students observe their own speech in mirrors. They feel how the lips pop to make a ‘p’ and how the tongue taps to make a ‘t.’ They learn to visualize pictures in their mind.
‘We talk about how we use our eyes to see, our ears to hear and how we use our mouth,’ said reading teacher Karen Brown. ‘I’m a convert.’
The Pueblo district reallocated its funding to put $ 1.5 million this fall into expanding the unique reading program.
All staff members at seven schools are being trained in the techniques, while children performing below grade level at three other schools are being bused daily to a six-week intensive reading clinic at Bessemer.
‘Schools and districts that make that kind of commitment will make dramatic improvement,’ Commissioner Moloney said.
At Kemp, there aren’t any special reading programs that are being touted for the success, just a focus on literacy from the time students come into the school until they move onto middle school.
In the preschool classroom, everything is labeled so that the young students are exposed to letters and writing. Gym teachers use their planning time to tutor youngsters struggling in reading.
But the most important thing is to make reading fun, school officials say, so that children will want to read. So far, that seems to be working.
‘Reading can take you places if you don’t have a lot of money to fly on a plane,’ said Kemp fourth-grader Jose Palacios.