Thursday, 13 October 2011 11:50

Huntsville School embraces literacy as key to success

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Submitted by Palliser Regional Schools
Iron Springs
The start of a new school year always begins with optimism and promise, but this year that is especially true at Huntsville School in Iron Springs.
This will be the first year the school staff will implement its English as a Second Language Intervention Program, a school-developed approach aimed at improving learning for all students.

Principal Sherrie Nickel says this focus on literacy is the result of support and collaboration by everyone on staff and will impact every student, whether they are just learning English or have mastered many skills.

The project was developed following extensive research on literacy and how children acquire skills, Nickel says. From there, the staff created a literacy competency checklist which follows that basic sequence of skill development.

The first step, however, was for the six teachers on staff to agree on a common definition of literacy.

The team adopted a definition Nickel found in Realization: The Change Imperative for Deepening District-Wide Reform, a book by Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan Palliser officials purchased for every principal and vice-principal in the division.

According to Sharratt and Fullan, “Literacy is the development of a continuum of skills, knowledge and attitudes that prepare learners for a life in a changing world community. It begins with the fundamental acquisition of skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, representing, responding and mathematics. It becomes the ability to understand, think, apply and communicate effectively in all subject and program areas in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes.”

With support last year from Palliser Regional Schools’ AISI (Alberta Initiative for School Improvement) coach Shari Rogerson, a series of resources were created, such as flash cards and word games, to target specific skills on the checklist.

Those resources are organized in two large plastic storage bins, housed in the school staff room, which also provides the space for “pullout” time during which students work in groups of just three or four with a learning assistant.

The need for this literacy intervention program was driven home this year when eight students between the ages of four and 14 arrived at the school with little or no English skills.

Like most students at Huntsville, the children came from a Low German Mennonite background.

For students such as these new arrivals, the intervention program offers 1.5 to three hours a day of intensive work on language with one of two learning assistants at the school. Until students have some basic English, instruction time in a subject such as Social Studies is less than meaningful, Nickel says.

Another key to the program is every student is assessed at the outset to determine his or her existing language skills.

The school adopted a unique schedule for the year, with every class at every grade studying language arts at the same time of day. The shared schedule means students can move between classes for the instruction they need. A student in Grade 5, for example, can move to Grade 3 to pick up skills at that level.

A Grade 2 student who already excels in some literacy skills can move to a higher grade to work on more advanced concepts.

By having this flexibility, the school is maximizing its teaching resources and ensuring students get the instruction they need when they need it.

“This school is purely about teaching and learning,” she says. “It is catering to every individual child and to meeting their needs. This is education in its purest, most aesthetically beautiful form.”

Huntsville School is located in Iron Springs, about 45 kilometres north of Lethbridge. The school serves about 110 students from Grades 1-9, in addition to a preschool and kindergarten program.

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