WEST HARTFORD–Friday is assessment day in Room 111 at Braeburn Elementary School. Nancy Wildt, the school’s literacy tutor, spends the day handing out worksheets full of reading passages with blanks in them, having students answer open-ended questions and timing students as they read paragraphs out loud, marking down mistakes.

Usually, Wildt works with multiple students at a time, putting together students across grade levels who are all struggling with the same concepts. They leave their usual classrooms for 30-60 minutes at a time to practice anything from phonics to reading comprehension.

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Colleen Wolters, an early intervention teacher, works with students on a reading exercise at Braeburn School

On Fridays, though, everyone sits at his or her own table, working quietly. Wildt grades the assessments as the students sit next to her, using the time to help them fix errors and understand why they got questions wrong-or ensuring students understand why they got questions right.

Time with a literacy tutor is just one of many interventions that Braeburn uses when dividing into different ability groups in the classroom just won’t cut it. There are also after-school groups about specific concepts, one-on-one and group tutoring for math, early reading interventions and special education, and ESL classes.

Although poverty is hardly a prerequisite for struggling in school, economically disadvantaged children need these interventions disproportionately. Right now, for instance, about 1 in 5 of Braeburn’s students receives extra help outside the classroom in reading. But closer inspection reveals that half of low-income students are receiving such help, compared with about 17 percent of non-poor students. Research shows that a student’s ability to read well is essential to academic success in all subjects, which is why Braeburn and other schools devote particular attention to reading interventions.

Connecticut has the nation’s largest achievement gap when it’s measured by students’ socioeconomic status-its low-income students perform, on average, nearly three grade-levels below their peers. And the problem isn’t confined to urban areas, in part because of changing demographics in many of the state’s suburbs. In West Hartford, low-income children have traditionally performed about 20-percentage points below others on the Connecticut Mastery Tests.

The district is working hard to serve all children who come through its door. And–despite all of the complexities and systems built into the district’s plans for improvement–at its root, that means sitting down with struggling children one-on-one or in small groups, figuring out what the problems are and tackling them head-on. There’s no magic bullet, except for time and a lot of patience.

“Ultimately, the interventions go child-by-child,” said Eileen Howley, West Hartford’s assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum.

Using the data

Braeburn is not wanting for data. Reading assessments are given weekly, math assessments monthly. District-wide tests come three times a year. Some of the students who receive reading interventions are assessed daily.

Data analysis–a catchphrase of current education reform efforts–is widely acknowledged as vital to overcoming the achievement gap. But it’s only part of the battle. “If you don’t have the data, you don’t even know what kind of job you’re doing,” said Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group that helps states develop education policy. “But then you have to use that data.”

As a result of the federal Race to the Top competition–which Connecticut lost last year, finishing 25th in both rounds–a number of states will be revamping their data systems or creating new ones. Many will likely eye Florida’s system, which Ellen Winn of the Educational Equality Project describes as “the best data system in the entire country.”

The Florida system tracks its students from childhood through college–or until they drop out, as the case may be. It also monitors where teachers were trained. “It’s amazing what they can tell you about their kids,” Winn says, noting that the state uses the data well. Florida had the seventh smallest achievement gap between low-income students and their peers on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests for fourth- and eighth-graders.

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West Hartford is working on using its numbers better, with weekly data-team meetings at every grade level in every school and using tests to develop pull-out sessions for individual students. At the elementary level over the past 18 months, these interventions have become increasingly targeted, said Howley, zeroing in on very specific problems and having several staff members address them-an expenditure the district hopes to maintain, provided the state keeps its budget at the 2010-11 level. Teachers are then loaded with the best strategies to overcome students’ weaknesses.

Working one-on-one

The sentence is simple: “There is a butterfly.” And Joseph, a kindergartner wearing a blue Braeburn shirt, has seen it many times before–the book is one of his “warm-up reads” for his time with Colleen Wolters, the school’s early intervention teacher.

And yet, he keeps reading it as “This is a butterfly.”

Wolters grabs her magnetic white board and spells out the two different words, asking him to spot the difference. ” ‘This’ has ‘-is,’ ” she says, running his fingers below the letters. ” ‘There’ has ‘-ere.’ “

Even so, returning to the book, he misreads it again: “This is a butterfly.”

Mixing up the letters of “there,” Wolters asks him to spell out the word. Humming to himself, Joseph gets it wrong the first and second time, reversing the “e”s and “r.” But finally, after several minutes on this sentence, he gets it right and flips the page.

Wolters leads the school’s early intervention program that targets first-graders, working with students in kindergarten and following up with them in second grade as well. Joseph, for example, is being prepped for this program. He’s still working on sight recognition of words and sounds. In half-hour early intervention lessons once a day for 40 to 60 days, Wolters will bring the six-year-olds up to grade-level–or even a bit above that.

“I see the child one-on-one. I keep data every day as to how they’re progressing and when to move them up,” Wolters said. “And when I’m with that child one-on-one, I’m able to determine what strategy they’re not using.”

Where one student might have problems with decoding, another could have issues with fluency, while a third might have comprehension issues. Their lessons will be completely different, tailored to their needs.

The school’s interventions–taken from the statewide program of Scientific Research-Based Interventions–reflect a belief that each student has unique academic strengths and weaknesses, something that Braeburn Principal Natalie Simpson drills into her teachers on a regular basis.

“A doctor is not going to prescribe amoxicillin for every student who walks in the door,” she said.

Most interventions are designed to be intensive yet short, ideally lasting eight to 20 weeks, before a student is caught up and moved out. Sometimes, though, a student will work with a reading specialist or ESL teacher for years before he or she is finally caught up.

“Ah… so close!”

“Okay, let’s go over this,” Wildt tells a little girl sitting across the table from her. “You’re going to be pleased.”

It’s a Friday in February and the literacy room is empty, save for one other student with her head hunched over a worksheet, filling in blanks in a passage about Michael Jordan.

The girl at Wildt’s table has just completed her weekly assessment, which requires her to read a passage out loud for a minute. Wildt follows along in her own copy of the passage, noting each mistake with a pencil.

There aren’t many errors. The most frequent: The girl reads the main character’s name as “Joe” every time instead of Joy. In all, she makes eight mistakes in 92 words, giving her a score of 84.

Getting out graphing paper to chart progress, Wildt reminds the girl that her goal for this June is 100. “Look at how much better you did than last time,” Wildt says, pointing to last week’s bar that dips into the 70s. “How do you feel about that?”

The girl just bites the sleeve of her bright pink sweatshirt and grins. Staring down at the 16 boxes between her current score and her goal, she leans over the page. “Ah,” she says. “So close!”

This story is third in a series produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Other stories are:

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