Could Wildflower Elem. Show Colorado How to Climb Peak on 3rd Grade Reading?

The big news in Colorado education the past couple days is the release of the latest round of 3rd grade reading scores on the state CSAP test. While we still have a long ways to go, it is mildly encouraging to see the small increase in reading proficiency across Colorado:

Statewide, 73 percent of third-graders scored proficient or better — 67 percent proficient and 6 percent advanced — on the 2011 Colorado Student Assessment Program reading test, up 3 percentage points from last year.

More telling, though, than the big sweeping numbers is identifying the pockets of success. And nothing jumps off the page more than the fact that all 3rd graders at Harrison School District 2’s Wildflower Elementary in Colorado Springs are at least proficient in reading, as reported by the local Gazette:

…52 percent of its third graders scored in the advanced category — the highest of any school in Colorado.

It’s particularly noteworthy because 74 percent of Wildflower students come from low income families and are therefore considered at risk for falling behind and dropping out of school in upper grades.

“We are so excited, it’s a miracle,” said Wildflower principal Wendy Birhanzel.

Now this isn’t the time or place for me to opine on the existence of miracles. But maybe we could get at the nuance in the principal’s justifiably enthusiastic remark. Rather than look for divine intervention, there should be plenty of school officials, principals and teachers across Colorado demanding to know: What exactly are they doing at Wildflower? What can we learn and adopt from what they’re doing? In other words, principal Birhanzel’s school is a great and truly logical place for the lieutenant governor to go on his statewide tour to promote third-grade literacy.

Another place to look is at district leadership — where we already know Harrison 2 under superintendent Mike Miles has courageously and persistently advanced thoughtful and wide-ranging education reforms — among them a revolutionary teacher evaluation and compensation program. (Interestingly, the first and only other Colorado district to trade the old teacher salary schedule for real compensation reform, Eagle County Schools, registered some positive results from the latest CSAP news, too.) Harrison 2 also is considering a 5-year plan for further action, including ending social promotion to 4th grade for students who cannot read. Not that it would affect Wildflower Elementary this year!

But as the Gazette article points out, and easily verified by a search on Ed News Colorado’s database, not all of the district’s 16 elementary schools mimic Wildflower’s outstanding results — about half of them declined from the previous year (though the district overall made a slight increase). So what’s going on? What makes the difference there? Wherever three out four students are low-income, and half the school is “proficient” at reading while the other half rates “advanced,” there is a remarkable story to tell.

As honorable mentions, 95 percent of the 3rd-graders at the local James Irwin Charter School registered proficient or above, while Harrison 2’s Bricker Elementary and Monterey Elementary made tremendous leaps ahead in reading proficiency. Hats off to these schools as well. Overall, though, Colorado still has a long ways to go.