BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Board of Education heard the second of three planned academic program evaluation presentations recently, this one centered on English Language Arts.

The presentation was led by department supervisors Candy Mulligan, Suzanne Wooby and Mark Jarmon.

“We’ve worked since early spring of last year,” said Mulligan.

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The program review committee consisted of more than 40 staff members, situated across all grade levels and disciplines. The group was also split into smaller subcommittees.

Goals for the English Language Arts (ELA) program include empowering readers and writers in the district; strengthening the pillars of ELA, including reading, writing, grammar, word study and handwriting; and honoring professional staff’s needs.

“There’s an increasing number of students screened with newer assessments,” said Mulligan. “We’re helping teachers to use that data.”

Currently, from grades kindergarten through four, the district emphasizes word study, including spelling and vocabulary. It also emphasizes handwriting, encompassing manuscript writing for grades kindergarten through two and cursive writing.

Moving to grades five through eight, the focus is on a novel-based reading curriculum, including grammar and vocabulary instruction, along with genre-specific writing units.

At the high school level, there is still an emphasis on a novel-based reading curriculum. That is paired with a study of classic and contemporary core texts, plus required grade-level writing assignments and embedded grammar/vocabulary instruction.

Common ELA district assessments in grades kindergarten and first include one-on-one assessments in phonics, reading accuracy and comprehension, plus spelling inventory. In grades two through four, there are still one-on-one assessments for reading accuracy and comprehension, along with spelling inventory, district writing samples and online literacy.

Grades five through eight have beginning-of-the-year and end-of-the-year assessments, while grades nine through 12 have beginning-of-the-year and mid-year assessments.

Surveys were conducted through the ELA department for three target audiences: teachers (53 percent response rate), students (71 percent, from grades three through 12) and parents (5 percent). It was found through the surveys that, as students age and move to higher grade levels, they have less time to apply what they learned to reading books of their own choice, coupled with less time to read books of their own choosing.

There is also inconsistent understanding of a workshop model, which ostensibly encourages student creativity, as applied to reading instruction.

“Student choice,” said Jarmon, “is the hallmark of a workshop model.”

Not all students in the district are learning and improving at the same rate either.

“There are subgroups of students who continue to struggle to achieve proficiency on tests,” said Wooby.

Regarding patterns of non-proficiency, the supervisors said that ELA achievement is particularly out of reach for 50 percent of the district’s black and Hispanic students, as compared to 20 to 25 percent of its white students and 10 to 15 percent of its Asian students.

Supervisors also made site visits to five other school districts of similar socioeconomic levels to Bridgewater-Raritan, including West Windsor-Plainsboro, Freehold Township and Livingston, along with both Montgomery and Somerville in Somerset County. They were able to categorize their findings into several groupings.

“It was what could we bring back, to strengthen our own program,” said Mulligan.

Curriculum was also linked closer to reading skills.

“It’s not just the books they’re reading at the moment,” said Mulligan.

There was a clear progression in other districts of breaking down standards into skills, with learning consistent from one year to the next, and also across different grade levels.

Concerning their findings regarding phonics, Mulligan called it “engaging.” Phonics is essentially the teaching of reading and writing by using listening skills, and even by sounding out words.

“It was a whole class of small groups, systematic,” she added. “Ongoing assessment data was used to group students, according to assessments.”

Writing instruction was also studied.

“Students are able to articulate how to improve their writing,” said Mulligan. “Common rubrics (scoring guides) are utilized, (along with) student accountability.”

Professional development of staff was also considered, and it was discovered through the aforementioned surveys that teachers in the district both want and are willing to participate in more professional development opportunities.

“The key word that kept coming up was ‘sustained,’” said Mulligan.

That includes factoring more funding into professional development, while also collaborating with local college professors and the like.

The next step was program recommendations for the future. The first part is student ownership, as Wooby said that tomorrow’s vision is for greater student choice “as they move ahead as readers and writers.”

The step afterward is the application of transfer through reading and learning, with less re-tracking and repetition.

Under the student-centered instructional model, pupils will have a greater voice in choosing the books they read, while also generating and sustaining classroom conversations in small or large groups.

Students will also utilize their learning to think independently along with their peers, to realize what they are learning and to demonstrate applying skills and strategies to their next books or assignments.

“We envision them connected to both reading and writing,” said Jarmon, “and (emphasize) the need for small group instruction.”

Phonics is the next challenge that was studied.

“All students learn at different levels,” said Mulligan. “We need to assess where they are.”

Bridgewater-Raritan students begin to study cursive writing in the second grade and continue that work into the third grade. Formal instruction in cursive, however, ceases in the district in the fourth grade.

“Instructional time starts to become more precious (then),” said Mulligan.

The district is also looking to make inroads at the three different grade levels in design, revise and ensure. Those areas may include curriculum revisions, skill progressions, reading and writing units, projects, assessments, targeted instruction, resources and more, geared to the specific grade levels.

“We have to make sure our existing exams are tweaked, and allow transference skills to be applied,” said Wooby.

The prognosis is for a five-year cycle, which is used regularly in the district for program evaluations and improvements, starting this summer and extending to 2024, using grade one as an example.

Board member Zachary Malek asked how the evaluation and subsequent changes will benefit lower-performing students.

Mulligan replied that staff has to recognize that there may be some skill gaps, realized through assessments, and thus work has to be more specific to student needs.

Board member Melanie Thiesse asked about student writing skills, and how many projects they should be undertaking.

“Students need more cursive practice,” Wooby said, adding that she would like to see more writing tied into reading. “I think we see writing growing.”

Jarmon said that, oftentimes, writing is assigned rather than simply taught.

“We’d like for greater focus on teaching writing, rather than assigning it,” he said.

Board member Barry Walker asked about utilizing other administrators, as Mulligan, Wooby and Jarmond aren’t able to be everywhere in the district at all times of the day.

“It’s a really big challenge, one step at a time, and prioritizing at each grade level,” said Mulligan.

The goal is to not only have a focus, but to sustain that focus for a year’s time, and then come back and revisit the efforts that have been made.

“It’s going to take a few years for all this to stick,” said Mulligan, adding that the district and its ELA faculty will have to start slow.