Fight for literacy


Coming into the school year, administration at McNary High School knew that they were getting a high volume of incoming ninth graders that weren’t reading at grade level — roughly 45 percent of the freshman class. 

During the first semester, McNary offered literacy tutorials for students that needed remedial assistance to try and help them get back on track.

However, at the start of second semester, the Salem-Keizer School District made the decision to eliminate literacy tutorials, or any English electives that were used as a substitute for students that were unprepared for ninth-grade English classes. 

The decision put the burden on McNary English teachers to try and figure out how to help struggling kids catch-up, even though they were now put in a class that was above their skill level. 

“There have always been low readers and there has always been high achievers,” McNary English teacher Melinda Bouley said. “But this year, it’s been harder to differentiate the extremes that are there because without the literacy tutorials, you have to figure out how to support the kid that is at a third-grade reading level when I have kids that are reading at a senior level in the same class reading the same text.”

But Bouley is in her 12th year teaching freshman English at McNary, and she is no stranger to rolling with the punches.  

Bouley is teaching four English-nine classes this semester and two of them are co-taught by Nicole De Blasi, who, along with being a co-teacher, works in the special education department at McNary.

English classes are co-taught when there are a high number of students on IEP’s (Individualized Education Plan) in the class.

An IEP kid is recognized as a student that is determined to either have a disability, or needs special accommodation. 

“We might need to give you extra time on a writing assignment or we might need to have someone read the text to you if your having a hard time reading it on your own. There are different accommodations that go along with an IEP,” Bouley said.

One example Bouley and De Blasi use for extra support is helping with note-taking strategies. 

For instance, when Bouley is up lecturing or giving a power point presentation, De Blasi will often take partial notes and then work with kids on filling in the blanks. 

“What I am really looking at is supporting kids when she (Bouley) is lecturing. I’m watching to see where they’re lagging and I come in to give them more support,” De Blasi said. 

De Blasi will also give kids one-on-one attention while the class is doing interactive group work, which is a commonality in this classroom. 

“We try to make it engaging for the kids, especially because struggling readers usually don’t like to read,” Bouley said. “I like to try and find the kids who hate reading and see if I can get them to just like it a little bit. If you can get that, I think that’s a huge success because kids are going to be reading no matter what job they do.”

Two or three times a week, Bouley will start her class with 15 minutes of silent reading and gives her students the choice of what they want to read. But she has witnessed many of her kids struggle with the task.

“I think it can be really difficult for some kids to have the stamina to read for a consistent amount of time because of phones,” Bouley said. “Technology is instant stimulation all the time. So it they’re on their phone at home instead of reading, it’s hard to go from that to go onto read for 15 minutes.”

“I think phones have made a big impact on kids’ attention spans in general and that impacts reading.”

While college isn’t the route that every student desires to take, one of Bouley’s goals as a teacher is to prepare her kids for the amount that they will have to read when they enter their freshmen year of college.

“If we don’t try to teach our kids now to build up that stamina, it’s really difficult to be thrown into how many hours a freshman in college has to read,” Bouley said. 

“We’re trying to build up that stamina now and that is something I’ve seen be harder to do over the years.” 

A big part of that goal for Bouley is giving students beneficial reading strategies through AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) that, will not only help them in school, but be beneficial for the rest of their lives. 

Marking the text (circling key terms, names, places and dates while also underlining author’s claims) is one of the main AVID strategies that Bouley encourages her kids to do. 

“It helps the kid be more active while reading,” Bouley said. “If you’re reading a text without knowing why you’re reading it, it’s not as effective.”

Even though literacy tutorials are no longer a part of the curriculum, McNary has implemented a literacy skills lab for students that need remedial help.

The lab will preview what is coming up in their ninth-grade English classes and will also offer reviews about what is currently being studied in the class. 

“Our goal is to have kids have access to the general ed setting as much as possible. We don’t want them to come into McNary and get behind,” De Blasi said.

De Blasi is teaching one lab this semester geared towards special education students, but there are other labs available for students that need/want additional help with material — the labs serve as an elective credit. 

Even though the lit skills labs are a useful tool, De Blasi believes that the co-taught classes are the more crucial aspect of getting kids what they need to graduate.

“The model of co-teaching helps us get all kids in all those classes and that’s when I am able to deliver my services so they never fall behind in their credits,” De Blasi said. “That’s why our graduation rates are so high.”

While there are a large number of underclassmen who are struggling with literacy, McNary still has some of the best graduation rates in the state — 88.24% in 2018, which was more than 12 percent higher than the state average. 

What might be even more impressive is that McNary has increased the number of graduates for special education students by nearly 20 percent — from 57.5% in 2016 to 76.7% in 2018. 

When it comes to helping struggling students or having a successful special education program, McNary principal Erik Jespersen believes that the teachers at his school are going above and beyond the call of duty. 

“We have the best special education staff in the state of Oregon and our co-teaching model has proven to be very effective when it comes to interventions,” Jespersen said. “It’s all about the overall approach to education our students.”

“We’re getting really desirable outcomes for our kids.”