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For Mequon-Thiensville's Julie King, teaching reading is a royal passion.
Story by Matt Hrodey
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
Julie King had a student who was afraid of her own ideas. The girl was “very shy, someone who had struggled in school up to that point,” says the reading specialist at Steffen Middle School in the Mequon-Thiensville School District. Like other students, the sixth-grader had been sent to King for extra help.
Something about writing her ideas down and leaving them vulnerable to judgment unsettled the student, and she was now reluctantly creating an outline for what would later become an essay.
“Then we took that permanence away,” says King, who had the student write her ideas on sticky notes and then place them on the form she was using to write the outline. One by one, the girl organized the little pieces of paper.
“We talked about what didn’t fit,” says the specialist, who asked the student, “Does that fit in that paragraph? No? Let’s take it out.”
Discarded ideas accumulated on the table. Then the student noticed where they could fit, and the outline grew. The exercise became a breakthrough for the young writer.
In Milwaukee Magazine’s new study of Best Schools, King’s district ranked as the Best Overall K-12 District, a category that took into account scores on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) standardized test that’s administered to elementary, middle and high school students. It also factored in ACT and Advanced Placement test results, indicators of college readiness.
Of the 33 Milwaukee-area K-12 districts studied, several others boasted similarly high scores, including Whitefish Bay, our No. 1 Top Scorer in the high school category, as well as Elmbrook, Germantown, Cedarburg and Greendale.
Asked why their districts excel, administrators tout various programs and initiatives, each slightly different in approach.
At Mequon-Thiensville, Superintendent Demond Means points to the district’s fixation on developing literacy – the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening – in all content areas, even math.
“It’s the engine that drives our curriculum,” he says. “We ask kids to express themselves in writing in every subject.”
For some five years, the high-scoring district has placed reading specialists – specially certified teachers armed with advanced skills in literacy intervention – at each of its three elementary and two middle schools.
“We follow a systematic approach,” says Heidi Pergande, the Donges Bay Elementary specialist. “It takes about 10 years to become what we consider a proficient reader.” The process typically runs from ages 5 to 15.
“We like to say we are preventing reading deficiencies instead of alleviating them,” she says.
Mequon-Thiensville, like some other districts in Wisconsin, is adding more nonfiction books and articles to its curriculum, partly to get more boys engrossed in reading. Anna Young, the Lake Shore Middle School specialist, says boys are often more interested in real-life subject matter.
Recently, while reading such a book with a small group of boys, she noticed something unusual out of the corner of her eye. “I could see on my sides,” she says, “that these young men were peeling back the pages and looking ahead.”
That’s the X-factor: student interest. “It’s magic,” she says. “It’s this magic thing.”
It’s present at younger ages, too, according to Pergande. “Boys rush into the library to the snakes and the lizards and the motorcycles.”
But districts are also teaching more nonfiction because it improves reading comprehension, she says. “Nonfiction demands more of the reader, and you have to be more sophisticated in your approach to it.”
Knowing when to leave kids alone is also an important part of a reading specialist’s job, they say. Tara Webster, the Oriole Lane Elementary specialist, says it took until her second year of teaching (she started out teaching second grade) to “learn to sit back and let the kids read.”
The results could be astonishing. Sometimes, she says, “You could hear a pin drop.”