Reading success starts for students the day they enroll at Pembroke Academy, a Young 5-grade 8 charter school in Detroit. The first activity for each student is an assessment of their reading level. But the results of this test don’t determine what level reading group the student joins. It’s much more comprehensive, says Stevie von Seeger, Kindergarten Teacher at Pembroke Academy.
Because reading proficiency is fundamental for all academic work, at Pembroke Academy, a student’s reading level — not their age — determines what grade level they join. If a student is old enough to be in fourth grade, for instance, but tests at a second-grade level, the student enters second grade. The school then closely monitors the progress of each student to maximize individualized learning opportunities for continued growth toward academic proficiency.
This practice is unique and highly effective at placing students where they need to be to gain the literacy skills necessary for continued academic success, says von Seeger.
“The score gives us valuable insight into the student’s academic level and determines their grade level placement,” she says, adding that complex learning can’t take place without reading comprehension skills. In other words, a student won’t advance their learning until reading deficits are addressed and gaps are closed.
Unlike typical schools which place students in the grade according to their age, “at Pembroke Academy, we focus on the development of those foundational skills according to their instructional level,” von Seeger says.
Literacy skills matter
When students can learn at their own individual literacy levels, they build confidence and self-motivation, says von Seeger.
“Reading is required everywhere in all subjects, not just in the topic of reading. When we place a child at their literacy grade level, it helps instill confidence. They want to read more and are less frustrated,” she explains, adding that by focusing on reading and literacy from the first moment, students and their families understand the value of reading and writing, not just now, but for the student’s future academic success.
“Having each child take that initial placement test and then reviewing the results with each family instills the importance of reading and establishes it as a strong focus for their learning,” she says. “We’re not just reading for the joy of reading, but to build foundational reading comprehension and phonics skills to get them where they need to go. There’s a strong emphasis placed back on the student to persevere.”
Reading success and critical thinking
Strong literacy skills are essential to critical thinking, the skill that helps children succeed in academics — and in future careers. At Pembroke Academy, teachers plan ahead to include opportunities for students to challenge themselves to think deeply about the topics they study.
“We focus on critical thinking all the way down to our Young 5s so when students reach middle school, they can have in-depth conversations with their teachers, their parents and their peers,” says von Seeger.
With her own kindergarten students, von Seeger offers the example of learning to count by twos. As her students study the number line in the classroom, she challenges them with questions that call upon higher-order thinking to provide context and help embed the skill. “We talk about what happens if we take numbers away from the number line, then we use manipulatives to apply the skill,” she explains.
When her students read historical fiction and other genres, von Seeger says she challenges them to apply other skills they’ve learned to dive deeper into the story and build those important connections, even to help determine if the text is factual.
Using data for effective learning
Through the research-based Open Court Reading program, teachers lead students through immersive phonics and reading comprehension that builds from year to year, always challenging students to build literacy skills — and celebrate their successes, too.
“We are a data-driven school and that’s intentional for every student,” von Seeger says. “The data we gather helps us personalize learning so each child has a different goal and a way to reach that goal. This allows us to support the needs of every reader.”
Frequent assessments based on Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) helps students and teachers set individualized goals and measure progress regularly.
“DIBELS requires specific progress monitoring at the beginning, middle and end of each year and allows us to check phonics and reading comprehension,” says von Seeger. “We can see growth by breaking down the areas of reading for each child. We use data to drive instruction in areas of weakness that can be addressed in small groups.”
Regular communication with families offers suggestions for activities parents can do at home to help build reading success. “We have a strong parent partnership and try to provide as many tools as we can for our parents,” says von Seeger.
With support from Pembroke Academy’s charter authorizer, Central Michigan University and The Center for Charter Schools, plus management organization National Heritage Academies, teachers have what they need to support students to achieve reading success.
“Because we are a charter school, we raise the bar and set high expectations for all stakeholders,” says von Seeger. “And we have all the resources and support we need, with top-notch collaboration across the state and the nation. Our curriculum provides an abundance of tools including reading level books and manipulatives. If we need something we reach out to our administration team and in connection with NHA or CMU and they make it happen for us.”
Celebrating reading and literacy
Students and teachers don’t necessarily need a reason to celebrate the success they are achieving, but they gear up for March is Reading Month with a variety of activities — and include students’ families, too.
“It’s our favorite month of the year,” von Seeger says. “We send a calendar out to families with a different activity for each day. We decorate our classroom doors with our favorite book titles and each class does a literacy project. We dive deep into our skills and build from the previous year.”
In kindergarten, for example, students select a book at their own reading level, then focus on the title, author, illustrator, setting and characters. They may even study the tone or mood of the book.
“As students grow, they expand on these elements. A kindergartner might say a book is happy or informative, but an older grade might dive in deeper to explore the reason for the tone or mood,” she says. “During the month, we have a themed spirit week and we dress up as our favorite book characters, and everyone celebrates at our literacy family night with games and interactive fun. We have a huge turnout.”