Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

New York Times columnist Joe Norcera recently found an example of collaboration on literacy between a charter school and public elementary schools in neighboring Rhode Island. The relationship between The Learning Community, a charter school, and the Central Falls Public Schools, forged around reading instruction in kindergarten through second grade, “has resulted in dramatic improvements in the reading scores of the public schoolchildren,” Norcera writes.

(See also Chelsea Clinton’s story on NBC.)

First, some background. Central Falls, as Norcera notes, is Rhode Island’s poorest city.  Three-quarters (76%) of the 3,000 students in the city’s public schools are low-income, compared to 88% of the 400 children in the K-8 charter school, according to Voices in Urban Education, a publication of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. About one-fifth of children in each are English language learners.

“Before starting The Learning Community in 2004, [co-founders Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman] spent three years working with the Providence school system on a pilot program designed to come up with ways to ‘transform teaching practices and improve outcomes,’ says Friedman. During a time of upheaval in the school system, a small corps of great teachers were the real anchors in the schools. In setting up The Learning Community, O’Leary and Friedman wanted to apply the best practices they had learned during the Providence project — and, eventually, to use their knowledge to help public school districts in Rhode Island,” Norcera writes.

“They got their chance in 2007, when Frances Gallo became the Central Falls Schools superintendent. After she got the job, Gallo stopped in on several families just as they had learned that their children had won a spot (via lottery) in The Learning Community. ‘They were so excited,’ recalls Gallo. She wanted to understand why.

“So Gallo began spending time at The Learning Community — where she, too, became excited. The school drew from the same population as the public schools. It had the same relatively large class sizes. It did not screen out students with learning disabilities. Yet the percentage of students who read at or above their grade level was significantly higher than the public school students. When Gallo asked O’Leary and Friedman if they would apply their methods to the public schools, they jumped at it.”

The collaboration focuses on “reading instruction as a key driver of The Learning Community’s success and a fundamental job of the early grades,” the Voices article notes. “Diagnostic assessments from the Central Falls elementary schools suggested that their students read accurately and fluently, but their comprehension lagged.”

The result is the Growing Readers Initiative, a collaboration that started as a pilot in 2008 and then spread to all K-2 classes in each of the city’s four elementary schools. It utilizes data-driven instruction, a sharing of best practices, the hiring of reading specialists, ongoing professional development and “rapid reponse” intervention and additional instruction for students who struggle with reading.

“There is a sense of a team being behind every teacher,” Friedman tells Voices. “So we’re not expecting that teachers are responsible on their own for 
reading. There is a reading safety net team that is there to work with students.”

The initial results show that 86% of participating students in the pilot reading are at or above national benchmarks after six months. The percentage of students in each school reading at or above the national benchmark increased 5-21 points.

Yet, Norcera notes, the city’s fiscal crisis and changes in state funding might portend cuts in the program. “Let’s hope it doesn’t happen,” he writes. “What is happening between this one charter school and this one school district offers an all-too-rare chance for optimism — not just about Central Falls’s public schools, but America’s.”