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Literacy Lives at Whitman

Teachers believe access to books plus time to read will equal passion for students.

Two weeks before students would arrive at Walt Whitman Middle School, seventh grade English teacher Tafanie Gregory had started putting her room together. The walls were still bare. Desks and chairs were jammed into a formidable tangle. But on the bookshelf near the teacher’s desk, rows of shiny paperbacks were neatly tucked into place. When English instructional coach Leslie Pratt walked into the room with a cardboard box full of books, Gregory quickly spotted the volumes set in the fictional Bluford High School. Published by Townsend Press, the Bluford books feature mainly black and Hispanic characters and gritty story lines. “The kids love these,” Gregory exclaimed, “love them. Do I get them?” When Pratt said yes, Gregory whooped happily. She began lining up the new volumes beside their well-thumbed counterparts.

Walt Whitman’s teachers are excited about reading because their students are. Concerned about student literacy, the school made an effort last year to put a library in every classroom. It has also set aside thrice-weekly reading times each ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. The response from students has been “amazing,” according to Pratt. “Having the books at their fingertips and the built-in reading time, they have devoured these books,” she said.

“We’ve gotten everybody on board,” said assistant principal Ruth Woods, the administrator for English. “We wanted to make sure all of our kids were reading, excited about reading, captivated by reading.” Woods said that the school’s theme this year will be, “literacy is alive at Whitman.” She believes that improving students’ reading ability will also help them in other areas, especially writing. “We feel like if our students can read, they can write,” she explained.

Improving core skills across every subject has been a focus for the school, said Principal Otha Davis. He described how Whitman teachers have been working with one another to incorporate writing assignments into every class. He said teachers have also been using practice writing tests in October to pinpoint where they need to focus instruction so that students will be prepared for the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) writing tests in the spring.

WALT WHITMAN participates in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program. It provides a methodology for teaching subjects in a way that stresses the connections between all the classes the students are taking. Davis said the school is preparing for its five-year reauthorization review this year. He added that Whitman will also be adding an after-school program designed to give students a “structured and supervised” place to stay after the school day. The program will be free and open to all students. Davis said they are expecting between 75 and 100 students to participate. “Hopefully it will assist with keeping them out of mischief.”

New PTA president Lorraine Belanger said she hopes the PTA will be able to support the after-school program. This would fall under her wider goal of encouraging the school’s community to become more involved with its students. She said the success of math tutoring and reading aloud programs at Riverside Elementary, where she used to be the PTA president, have inspired her to push for more interaction between Whitman’s neighbors and its students. “I think that good role models are nice to have,” she explained. She added that the PTA was eager to work with Principal Davis and his staff. “Whatever Mr. Davis wants we will jump through hoops for him, because we love him.”

To improve school discipline, Davis said he and his staff have put into place a county program called Positive Behavior Support, which provides teachers and students a framework for working towards the “common goal” of reducing referrals to the principal’s office. Teachers can nominate students with improved behavior to be entered in a Friday raffle for rewards like a pizza, movie coupons and being first in line for lunch. To encourage participation on all sides, the teachers who nominate students are also entered in the raffle. “It helps teachers focus on good behavior in the school,” Davis said. This summer, Whitman was given a PBS “Exemplar Award” from the county for its implementation of the program.