Ask any teacher in any classroom at any school around the United States what their greatest challenges are, and more likely than not, addressing every student’s unique needs will be somewhere on that list.
Teachers at St. Angela School are no exception, as they work with a diverse range of learners in each classroom. Luckily, St. Angela is fortunate to have an array of in and out of classroom resources to provide students with a holistic education that addresses their individual needs.
St. Angela welcomed a new literacy specialist who is working with faculty and administration to increase literacy scores across the school. Dr. Marygrace Farina earned her master’s in reading education and a doctorate in leadership in Florida before joining the staff at St. Angela. While in Florida, she worked with all classroom levels, from elementary to community college, teaching students to read effectively and be engaged learners.
While math scores at St. Angela currently exceed expectations, reading scores overall need work. Farina joined the team at St. Angela in 2019 as a reading specialist and sees low reading scores as being symptomatic of students’ need for better test prep, and literacy education that caters to unique learning styles. All of this, says Farina, leads to engaged learning.
“Literacy is much more of a cognitive skill than math, as far as we know. Math has a format and a definite structure. You follow step one, two and three. But reading starts earlier. It starts with oral language. You have to take information, process it, and come up with ideas and a conclusion on your own, not just passively. It’s engagement,” Farina said.
Because of the difference in processing required for reading, Farina says that math and literacy skills must be taught in very different ways. And while a newfound push for STEM education has started to dominate the educational discourse across the country, the “nation’s report card” revealed in 2019 that schools in half of the United States have seen reading scores decline.
Bruce Schooler, the new principal, has set raising literacy scores as a top priority for the school, which Farina says will benefit all areas of study for students. The school also plans to hire more literacy specialists to provide assistance to more students.
“It’s [Schooler’s] number one priority because math scores will go up if literacy goes up. You have to read the math problem, you need to understand what data they’re giving you and what is not important,” Farina said.
Farina is approaching literacy education at St. Angela with a holistic lens, one not solely targeting test-taking.
She also focuses on learning styles, so that students can adjust their education to their unique and preferred style of learning, such as visual or kinesthetic.
Students are tested with the ACT Aspire Assessment System in the fall, winter and spring. According to Schooler, the data from the first administration of Aspire to the second last year shows positive growth.
When discussing improved test scores, Farina says test scores will not change immediately, nor should they.
“There’s no magic potion,” she said, “It is not going to go from 30th to 90th percentile [overnight]. We want to show growth, and if we can show growth, the kids have moved. It’s gradual.”
—LUCIA WHALEN, Contributing Reporter
And there’s extra help, too
Along with literacy coaching, St. Angela School has a strong team of resource specialists who assist teachers and students.
Mary Darnell is a retired occupational therapist who started volunteering at St. Angela School after selling Kids Unlimited, her business in Oak Park. Darnell works with students from all grade levels twice per week on handwriting, while also incorporating exercises and practices that engage students sensory processing and fine motor skills.
Darnell’s classroom is called the Life Skills Center, and younger students join Darnell in her classroom to work on basic life skills necessary for developing brains, such as shoe tying, buttoning, and scissor use.
“It might seem basic, but all younger children need to learn the skills that adults take for granted as automatic activities, like grabbing a pair of scissors off the table and cutting a piece of paper,” said Darnell.
Darnell also uses “theraputty” with younger students to strengthen their hands and aid in coordination development for daily activities.
According to Darnell, all the work she does with students is teacher directed and based on what teachers notice their students need support with.
Students who need extra support to gain academic strength can also meet with Adrian Brown, the Title 1 academic coach. Along with academic development, Brown works with students on internal regulation such as self-esteem, anger management and organizational skills.
Teachers who identify students with special needs can call on Brown and the Title 1 team for extra help.
“We try to find what the student might be deficient in and why and then address the challenge,” Brown said.
According to Lynn Fredrick, director of advancement at St. Angela, out of classroom resources are crucial for tackling the diverse needs of students.
Follow these links to all of the other individual stories in the St. Angela School special section: