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Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Schools take teens back to 2 of the R's

By Lynn Thompson
Times Snohomish County Bureau

English student Mirnes Imsic reads "My Side of the Mountain" in Andrea Coglon's class at Lynnwood High School.
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There isn't a copy of "Moby-Dick" in sight.

The students in Andrea Coglon's sophomore English class lean on elbows or slouch low behind books with titles such as "The Car," "Slam!" and "Hardball." One boy's hair is a spiky sunburst of neon green. Other faces around the room bear pierced eyebrows, nostrils and lips. These kids are the ones, a school administrator explains, who used to sit in the back of classrooms and quietly fail.

This morning, they are reading. In fact, everyone at Lynnwood High School spends these 20 minutes at the start of second period quietly engaged with a book. In last spring's Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), Lynnwood High School students posted some of the sharpest gains in reading scores among schools throughout the region. The school's scores jumped from only 35 percent of students meeting state standards in 2000 to 68 percent in 2004.

They did it by bringing what Lynnwood Principal Dave Golden described as a "laserlike intensity" to a skill that two decades ago was assumed to have been mastered by the third grade. Teachers beyond that grade weren't instructed how to teach reading, and students either figured out for themselves how to penetrate increasingly complex literature and textbooks, or they fell hopelessly behind.

For many students, the new emphasis on literacy is a radical departure from years of getting by without reading a book. Many have had experiences similar to Lynnwood senior Mike Finch, who describes his reading attempts in most subjects as "in one eye and out the other."

He cheerfully claims to be flunking everything but welding and physical education. In fact, his grades are mostly B's and C's, and though he's behind in Matt Rockne's senior English class, Coglon vows that he will pass.

As a freshman, Finch recalls, Coglon made him read books when he hated books, made him keep a journal with responses to what he read. Made him write five-paragraph themes and an introductory letter. Sat in the desk next to him, if necessary, to prod him for more words.

"I can get my ideas down better on paper," he says. "I can lay things out in a more organized way.

"I still hate books with a passion," he adds with a grin, "but my writing has improved a lot."

Not just for English classes

English teacher Andrea Coglon, a 34-year classroom veteran, works with Ryan Schaeffer to help him write an assignment during class at Lynnwood High School. For many students, the new emphasis on literacy is a radical departure from years of getting by without reading a book.

The efforts to improve literacy at Lynnwood aren't confined to English classes. In science, teacher Ray Carden has a "word wall" to introduce students to new vocabulary. Every department has a member on the school reading committee, a group that shares teaching strategies and helps teachers build libraries for a range of readers on the seemingly obvious theory that kids won't learn from books they don't understand.

School districts throughout Snohomish County are bringing a similar intensity, and urgency, to the task of teaching middle- and high-school students to read.

Propelled by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the state requirement that, beginning with the class of 2008, graduating seniors pass the WASL, districts are creating double-period language-arts classes to give kids performing below state standards more time to master basic reading skills. A number have added after-school study clubs and individual tutoring.

The teachers themselves, even those in science and social studies, are attending seminars and learning from each other strategies to help kids slow down, ask questions and really grasp what they read.

In January, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will release a new K-12 reading model to help schools improve teaching, focus on standards and create districtwide systems to support literacy efforts.

"Not reading can be a barrier to learning," said Mickey Lahmann, an assistant superintendent for curriculum with the state office. "We want to lower the barriers so kids can become educated, contributing members of society. It's a civil right to be able to read."

Local school districts aren't waiting for the state to complete its work.

The Edmonds School District, which includes Lynnwood High, redirected about $1.8 million for 2003-05 toward secondary literacy efforts, about $300,000 of which came from federal funds for struggling students.

The district has added 10 teaching coaches in the past three years to improve teachers' classroom skills in reading and math. Educators note that even the math portion of the WASL demands that students read and write.

Individual schools within the Edmonds district have added reading specialists and made increasing literacy central to their improvement plans. Last year, the district scrapped its secondary language-arts curriculum with its thick, standard-issue literature anthology and replaced it with a variety of books aimed at different reading levels. The new selection offers more multicultural voices and more nonfiction, said Bridgette Belasli, the program manager for secondary education.

Anthony Frederick works on an assignment in Coglon's reading-and-writing class.

The Everett School District has added six full-time-equivalent teachers so longer classes can be offered to students in danger of not meeting state reading standards, which required a score of 400 out of a possible 508 this year. The district also hired eight literacy facilitators to reshape how teachers teach reading, said Terry Edwards, the executive director of curriculum for Everett schools.

"The historical wisdom was that schools add literacy support in the early years, that you get kids help early, and to some extent that's true. But by middle school, a significant number of students are underperforming. We aren't unique in targeting this area," Edwards said.

The Marysville School District is using grants from Boeing and the Washington Alliance for Better Schools to train the social- studies department at Marysville- Pilchuck High School in reading strategies.

The district's new assistant superintendent, Gail Miller, formerly taught at Seattle Pacific University, instructing teachers how to work reading into content areas such as science, social studies and math.

She said struggling middle- and high-school readers often can decode text — that is, recognize individual words — but have difficulty finding meaning, drawing inferences, recognizing what's important and placing it within a larger context.

Kids who don't understand what they are reading detach and shut down. Researchers have documented that, Miller said, as early as the second grade.

In Mukilteo, a group of middle- and high-school teachers has met every week this month to practice new strategies to teach reading.

Alisa Griffen, a reading and language-arts teacher at Explorer Middle School, leads the discussions. She said even her advanced, college-bound students have trouble going beyond plot summary to think critically and analyze what they have read.

Teacher Andrea Coglon helps Courtney Richards with an English assignment during class at Lynnwood High School. Coglon mixes firm crowd control with liberal doses of maternal concern.

For two hours after school, and without extra pay, Griffen and about 14 other teachers practice new exercises, taking as their own text the book "I Read It, But I Don't Get It" by Denver schoolteacher Cris Tovani.

So eager are teachers for practical suggestions to engage their students and improve their skills that the book and its successor, "Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?" have become best sellers.

Griffen said many students think good readers read fast and understand everything the first time. Tovani tells teachers to model their own reading process for students: how they stop when confused, visualize what they're reading, highlight points they want to remember and verbally summarize what they've read.

"We want kids to talk about books the way we would as adults," Griffen said. "That's what engages them. It lets them know that their opinions matter."

Mary Fitzmaurice, an eighth-grade social-studies teacher at Harbour Pointe Middle School in the Mukilteo district, said that even four years ago, when she was getting a teaching degree at Western Washington University, these techniques to boost student comprehension and fluency weren't widely known.

"There's been an explosion in the last couple of years," Fitzmaurice said. "It's made a world of difference."

Entering a new world

At Lynnwood High School, sophomore Anthony Frederick sits in the back of Coglon's extended English class. He wears a blue basketball jersey emblazoned with the name he shares with his favorite professional player, Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets.

One of Frederick's earlobes winks with a diamond earring, the other with a gold stud. Neither is as bright as the smile he flashes at classmates. It's easy to imagine a succession of teachers passing him through classes on charm and verbal ability alone.

Frederick moved to Lynnwood two years ago with his mother and three siblings to get away from the gang violence and drive-by shootings of his native Brooklyn.

Until this year, he says, he didn't read books. He can read, however, and demonstrates by reciting aloud the somber last pages of the book he has just finished, "Tears of a Tiger," which tells the story of two friends on a high-school basketball team whose lives end tragically. It's the first of three books in the Hazelwood High trilogy.

Many of Coglon's students enter high school reading at a fifth-grade level. Her strategy for Frederick is the same as for other students in her two-period English class: Find a book among the hundreds that line her shelves that he can connect with and let him experience some success.

Comfortable-looking in her trademark sweat shirt and jeans, Coglon moves among the students, mixing firm crowd control with liberal doses of maternal concern.

A veteran of 34 years in the classroom, she calls her students "sweetie" and "honey." But when one boy won't stop talking to a pretty girl seated next to him, Coglon tells him to change seats "right now, and I don't want to hear another word."

"I'm on them all the time," she says of her sometimes-difficult charges. "It gives me great joy when they work."

For the past year, Coglon and fellow English teacher Rockne have participated in workshops sponsored by the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a group working with the Seattle School District to give teachers strategies to build students' reading and thinking skills. Two teachers from Alderwood Middle School, which feeds kids to Lynnwood High, also are participating.

With its high levels of poverty, transience and dropouts — almost 30 percent of students in 2002-03 didn't graduate on time — Lynnwood more resembles an inner-city school than its counterparts in the district. Assistant Principal Carmela Morelli credited Coglon with keeping kids in school through a combination of personal connections and high expectations.

"These are kids who may not have willingly picked up a book since 'Dick and Jane,' " Morelli said. "And yet they come back year after year."

Back in Coglon's class, Frederick puts down his paperback and tries to write a response in his journal. He easily recounts for her the plot twists in the book but struggles to put his thoughts into writing.

Coglon sits next to him, guiding his response, suggesting that he might start with a general statement and then back it up with detail from the book.

Frederick shakes his head, smiling at the effort involved. He'll keep at it, he says, because he needs to pass five classes to play on the school's junior-varsity basketball team.

But as he works at his writing, something else may be happening. This boy who hadn't finished a book for years is now questioning a classmate about the next two books in the trilogy.

"I'm beginning to like reading," he says.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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