By Brendan Clogston
Legislators and educators are reading into the Keverian School’s success with a literacy program, after the school’s successful implementation of the model was made the central case study in a presentation about the model at the State House on Tuesday. The program, called the Bay State Reading Institute (BSRI) reading model, was instituted by the school’s then-Principal John Obremski and Title 1 Coordinator Michelle Rooney, with the support of Superintendent Fred Foresteire and a $30,000 budget line, in the 2012-2013 school year.
In the five years since the program began – which, according to the group’s literature, is a “small-group instructional model using literacy as an entry point to changing teacher practice and culture” – the Keverian School has risen from a Level 3 to a Level 1 school, with higher MCAS and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) scores, and teacher-reported improvements in “student engagement, behavior, skills, and confidence.”
According to all involved, however, those scores weren’t taught in a day. In fact, at the outset, not only were the teacher’s wary of the model, Rooney herself wanted nothing to do with it.
Assembling the team
Obremski, after speaking with Foresteire about the “need for change” in the district, started looking for a new program to implement at the Keverian. He soon invited BSRI Co-Founder and Executive Director Ed Moscovitch to walk through the school. What Moskovitch saw, according to Obremski, were teachers working in isolation and working hard, but not always efficiently.
On a subsequent visit to a Revere school which had implemented the BSRI program, Obremski saw things he “was not seeing in our schools: kids of all languages and abilities having conversations in the classroom.” At the time, many rooms in Keverian still maintained the traditional, “teacher-centric” layout with chairs facing the front of the room, and featured little student conversation.
Obremski, excited to implement the program, now needed a “strong reading coach.” He asked Rooney to take the position. “She adamantly turned me down,” said Obremski. “She said, ‘No, this is going to be another one of those flavors of the month.’”
He tried to assured her that the program had the full support of the superintendent for the long-term, but she remained skeptical. Obremski asked her several more times over the course of the summer. In August, as she was setting up her classroom for the school year, Superintendent Foresteire appeared to have an impromptu meeting. She agreed.
Teachers take time to “buy-in”
While Rooney was on board, teacher “buy-in” at the outset was “not positive.”
“It’s a lot of change, a lot of hard work,” said Obremski.
The BSRI model has three key points: regular assessment and extensive data use, curated and differentiated curriculum, and intensive reading focus.
Classrooms were to be broken up into small groups, with students receiving instruction tailored to their learning level and needs, and encouraged to work and collaborate among themselves in order to build vocabulary. Every student had their “DIBELS” tested three times a year, and those in need of extra support could be tested up to once every two weeks. Teachers were then asked to review and share that data consistently in order to better understand their students’ needs, deficits and learning curves.
Such a program naturally created a lot of work for teachers in the early stages. The district applied resources towards teacher coaching and professional development. According to Rooney, it was only when teachers “saw that we were partners, that’s what led to the buy-in.” Teachers also soon saw the uses of the systematic application of data, according to Rooney.
Teachers also developed strategies amongst themselves to deal with the increased burden of creating instructional materials for students at different skill levels. A teacher team at the Keverian divides tasks by subject matter, and at the Parlin, which piloted the BSRI program in 2016-2017, a kindergarten team rotates duties by student skill levels. Teachers are also given more common planning time – up to every other day from around once every week or two – allowing them to “share data, materials, and pedagogical methods,” and to “collaboratively problem-solve” around student needs.
The program also mandates a 90-minute reading block of “differentiated center-based learning” where students do independent and small-group work.
To address students with greater needs, schools created interventionist positions that “can promptly help students who need extra support without removing them from the classroom during other parts of the day.”
Several teachers described the process as having to “learn how to teach all over again,” according to Rennie Center Chief Researcher and Associate Director Jennifer Poulos.
A five-year plan
“Driving change in a school takes hard work, and it takes hard work that takes a number of years,” said Poulos. “In Everett, there was support for the model at both the district and the school level, but [that] alone did not get the work done. It took a lot of hard work from administrators like John and Michelle; it took a lot of work from teachers; and it took a lot of years to stick.”
During the first year, according to Obremski, the school was more concerned with teaching the teachers than the resulting test scores. “In the first year especially, we told the teachers ‘We’re not worried about the scores at the end of the first year,’” said Obremski. “You cannot make that your focus or it’s going to be a disappointment. There is a learning dip whenever you’re introducing a new program. … In the first year, we just want to see you implementing the model faithfully; when we go into the room, we want to see kids in groups, and we want to see them having conversations.”
After several years of implementing the program; however, what several administrators described as a “complete culture change” occurred at the school. Walking into a Keverian classroom, gone are the symmetrical rows of front-facing desks filled by students passively listening to a teacher’s lecture. You’ll find instead small groups with students speaking and working collaborative together.
“Even if kids aren’t talking about academic concepts in their conversations, they’re having conversations,” said Obremski. “If they’re talking about the Patriots for two minutes when they’re supposed to be talking about photosynthesis, I’m alright with that. You’re building vocabulary, especially with our English Language learners and Special Education students.”
As teachers “had more time to work with each other,” fine-tune their practice and use data, they become “re-invested” and held “each other accountable,” according to Poulos. Student performance also changed, with increased test scores and greater “student buy-in to their own learning,” improved student behavior and more confidence in their learning skills and in “key soft skills” for “college, career, life”
In a quote touted several times by Poulos, one teacher was supposed to have said that “students can do a lot more than I expected from them.”
“Change is possible over time,” said Rooney. “It’s amazing what we did at the Keverian. So much change can occur in one building with the right curriculum, staff and administration support.”
State Senator Sal DiDomenico, whose children went through the program at the Keverian, introduced the presentation before an assembly of legislators and educators in the State House conference room, calling it one “deserving” of their “support,” and praising Obremski as “someone that’s a special person.” “He’s an innovative principal; he’s someone that understands that our children come first.”