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Justice High School, located outside of Washington, DC, in the suburban bedroom community of Fairfax County, Virginia, is beating the statistical odds to achieve student success. Two-thirds of the students are second language learners, more than 54% are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and the school has an excessively high mobility rate and a high student diversity level. Mel Riddile, school principal, provides an intriguing vignette of his school’s journey from the bottom of the achievement heap to the pinnacle of academic success. How did the school move from one of the lowest achieving schools within the Fairfax County School District to a school recognized as a Breakthrough High School? The answer, though not simple, is embedded in the school’s actions to achieve literacy for all.

Justice High School students were clearly identified as some of the lowest performers in the school system on Virginia’s Standards of Learning end-of-course exams. Mel Riddile arrived on the scene as the new principal, and he candidly asked the staff, “What do we need to do to improve student achievement?”

The staff provided two focus areas that have been critical to developing a solution for turning the learning opportunities around for students. First, the low attendance rate had to be turned around. Students were missing an average of 23 days per school year. This agonizing statistic has improved to an average of 7 days missed per year according to 2003 school data. Secondly, teachers stressed that students had to be taught to read well enough to pass content standards required in each of the school’s core content classes. In other words, students had to be moved from functional literacy to academic proficiency. The two areas of focus provided by Justice’s staff served as the foundation of the school improvement plan.

Assessment Guided Planning

Assessment provides the road map, or the big picture, to plan the journey for literacy improvement. Based on the recommendations of expert evaluators, Justice staff chose to administer the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test to all eighth graders entering the ninth grade at Justice. This assessment tool was chosen because it is normed on English language learners and students of poverty, and it was recommended as a relevant test for the student population of Justice. At first, there was resistance by district officials because they could not see the benefit of testing all eighth grade students scheduled to enter ninth grade at Justice. That resistance was overcome, and the test was administered. The scores revealed some disturbing facts about the literacy levels of the prospective ninth graders.

As the data were analyzed, 76% of the students scored one standard deviation below grade level, and 25% of the students scored three years below grade level. Although the test indicated a problem, it did not provide the exact literacy deficit. Therefore, additional testing was required. An individual literacy inventory, Burns and Roe, was given to all students scoring below the 40th percentile on the Gates-MacGinitie. This follow-up assessment diagnosed specific literacy problems and helped the staff to develop an action plan to address the targeted literacy deficits.

Performance of Justice High School Students on the
Virginia Standards of Learning Tests, 1998 and 2004
Reading and Literature64%94%World Studies II62%78%
Writing73%93%U.S. and Virginia History50%96%
Algebra I48%87%Biology55%81%
Algebra II55%94%Earth Science68%83%
World Studies I60%84%   

Scheduling and Other Instructional Supports

The assessment results led to a reorganization of the schedule and class offerings at Justice. A required literacy class was developed for all incoming ninth graders. Pre and post assessments are given to each student to document progress. The class is fluid in nature because the identified literacy needs of students are different. Some students require extra explicit instruction to develop required literacy skills, while other students move quickly through the computer-assisted lessons to more advanced literacy activities. The important aspect of this ninth grade literacy lab is that it is designed to meet the literacy needs of all students struggling to advance.

The students with the most critical literacy deficits are scheduled in an elective class that is taught by a literacy specialist. The specialist understands the specific literacy requirements of individual students and quickly develops a program to move students forward. The specialist provides explicit instruction in strategies at the literacy level of the student and additionally provides instruction with literacy strategies to read content texts such as history and science textbooks.

In addition to the computer lab and the elective reading class, students receive reinforcement with textbook literacy across the curriculum. A literacy coach was hired to work with all content teachers to support learning of literacy instructional strategies. Students receive individualized help in the lab and reading class, while content-area teachers employ literacy strategies before and during content instruction. Individual students who need additional support attend an after-school tutorial that meets three days per week, and there is also a summer school class to support literacy learning of students. If needed, students participate in a Level II literacy class as 10th graders. Student failure is not an option at Justice High School.

Professional Development Leads to Instructional Changes

Riddile indicated the most opposition to a secondary literacy program did not come from students or parents. The greatest resistance was among the teaching staff. First, teachers could not understand how they could cover course content and teach literacy strategies. Second, the teachers had no training in teaching literacy strategies. However,the data became key to convincing the staff there was a need to make a dramatic change from the traditional way of teaching to a more explicit form of teaching to meet the learning needs of students.

To turn teacher thinking around, initial professional development began with a 15-session college credit course. Three sessions, two hours each, were totally dedicated to literacy immersion strategies at the secondary level. The literacy coach supported teacher learning through mini-professional development sessions during the teacher’s planning periods. Peer teaching opportunities with a write-up of observations were followed with teacher reflections and discussions of the peer learning experience. The process involved the literacy coach modeling the strategy; peer observations, feedback, and follow-up; and additional coaching and support if required. Riddile reiterated that data were the key to convincing everyone of the need to change, and the conscientious staff took responsibility to ensure that instructional changes were in place to lead to student success.

A school culture to support literacy continues to evolve at Justice. The initial interpretation of the data and professional development to address learning needs of students and teachers began the process. Originally, teachers added a core repertoire of 15 literacy strategies that were fully immersed into instruction. All new teachers receive professional development to learn these core strategies. Today, experienced teachers add even more complex strategies to their daily instruction. Teachers at Justice use a modified Madeline Hunter and Calvin Rosenshine Instructional Model that they call BEEP, “Beginning, Engaging, Ending, and Practicing.” Embedded within this instructional model are pre-, during, and post literacy strategies.

Communication Across K-12

Along with the focus for increased teacher and student learning at Justice is an effort to continue and to expand literacy instruction at the elementary and middle school levels. Communication among staff at the three levels has identified the need to continue literacy instruction beyond the third grade. Riddile described this communication as having a profound impact on student literacy because students are arriving better prepared to succeed at the secondary level. Because the students often do not come from literacy-rich backgrounds, it is critical to maintain early success by continuing exposure to literacy-rich environments and literacy instruction beyond early elementary instruction.

Focus on Literacy = Student Success

It appears the administration and staff at Justice High School have discovered the critical mix of leadership, assessment, professional development, targeted instruction, and explicit assessment-driven intervention to improve student learning and literacy. As Riddile stresses, it requires “a long-term commitment to building capacity of staff by using student data to drive the process that leads to success.” It is an ongoing process that provides the structure for evaluation, reflection, action, and success.

Believing that all students can learn and maintaining high expectations for student success are the critical components of literacy instruction and improved student learning. Justice students in 1998 were passing only one of the Virginia Standards of Learning tests. Today, Justice students are exceeding Virginia’s pass rate on all 11 exams. Even more astonishing, students are actually enrolling in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a higher rate than ever expected. In fact, many students who began with literacy intervention classes graduate with a number of the IB classes in their academic portfolio. Can students beat the odds of low literacy achievement and resulting academic failure? The answer is a resounding YES! Students at Justice High School are definitely beating all odds.

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