By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Reading time in Stephanie Makjavich’s second grade classroom at Weddle Elementary School would likely set most visitors back a step. For almost a full hour, the dominant language is Spanish.
Makjavich and her assistant both conduct lessons in Spanish and the students, aside from the occasional dips into English, respond the same way. In an era when it’s not uncommon to hear pleas for English-only instruction, it’s hard to argue with the results the school has gotten by adapting its curriculum.
Weddle was recently recognized as a Continuing Success school in Oregon for its consecutive years of gains in student achievement.
“A huge part of our success is showing the connections,” Makjavich said. “Anytime there’s a word that’s similar or different we use that as a teaching point. We only need to learn to read once and having literacy in the student’s first language supports their ability to become literate in their second language.”
Weddle has more than its share of challenges: 91 percent of the students hail from impoverished families; the entire 432-student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch programs; and more than a third are English Language Learners.
When it comes to instruction, those challenges require a whole-student approach.
“We are trying to break the cycle of poverty by letting them know we expect each of them to go to college,” Makjavich said.
The mission comes from the top of the school, Principal Samantha Ragaisis, she said.
“It starts with strong leadership that has high expectations and doesn’t falter from that. Each year we try something new and we have a staff that’s invested in the population of kids,” Makjavich said.
Teaching a challenged population has gotten somewhat easier with new approaches to curriculum.
“When I started the district issued curriculum and we had to be teaching that, but the next year we had a common literacy model which gave us a set of skills that we had to teach, but we have the freedom to decide the best way to do that,” Makjavich said.
When teaching something like reading, the freedom permits her and other teachers to break off students into small groups for targeted emphasis on areas where they struggle or excel.
During reading time, Makjavich spends about 15 minutes each with three groups of readers at different levels of expertise. The first group is her struggling readers who are just beginning to understand things like characters and objects and how they combine to form a story, the second is more advanced and reads mostly for comprehension, the third group consists of readers already at a third-grade level with the ability to process information as they read. Students not targeted in those groups are allowed to read or write independently.
Connecting the material studied to relevant events or occurrences in students’ lives is important – and another challenge.
“I have to be aware of that and adjust how I teach. When I talk about vacations, I can’t assume that they’ve all had one or that they’ve all been on a plane, it has to be relevant to them while expecting the most of them,” Makjavich said.
The process of targeting students with specific needs is data-driven and based on test performances. If a student shows struggle in a given area, they are grouped with other students for interventions and rigorous focus on that topic.
Teachers also allow students time to talk about their lessons with their peers.
“We have a huge push now to have the kids turn and talk to each other about what they’re learning because everybody needs time to process,” Makjavich said.
While the students continue to improve year after year, the community still plays an important part in continued success.
Volunteers willing to work with teachers on special projects, or simply read to the students are always welcome, basic school supplies are typically in demand, and the main office recently ran out of winter clothing for students to borrow when accidents occur or if they come ill-prepared for weather.
“Our kids have a lot of basic needs and they can’t learn unless they’re clothed and fed and safe,” Makjavich said.