Rockford Parents Want to Keep Successful Reading Program

Published March 1, 2005

The parent organization of the Lewis Lemon public school in Rockford, Illinois is asking the local school board not to drop a three-year-old reading program that has raised the school’s test scores well above the district average. The school’s student body is 80 percent minority, and almost 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“We believe that changing the reading program will harm our students and that this is a social justice issue that requires all of us to rise up and speak out,” wrote 10 parents from the school’s executive Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) board in a letter to the Rockford Register Star that was not printed. “Our children deserve instruction that has been proven to work with African-American students. Not only is there research to support it, but we’ve seen it with our own eyes with Lewis Lemon’s test scores.”

Phonics Approach Succeeding

The Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy was one of three schools in the Rockford district where a phonics approach was introduced at the start of the 2001-02 school year. By the program’s second year, Lewis Lemon’s third-graders soared in their performance on the state’s 2003 reading and math tests, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT):

  • Lewis Lemon’s third-grade students ranked second overall of the 35 Rockford elementary schools;
  • Lewis Lemon’s black third-graders outperformed their white peers in the school and in the district, with 97 percent of the school’s black students meeting state standards in reading and math, compared to 92.3 percent of white students;
  • Among Lewis Lemon’s students classified as poor, 95.3 percent met the state’s math standards.

Although reading and math scores dipped a little in the 2004 tests, tests results remained well above district averages, and the results for writing continued to climb. (See accompanying charts.)

Lewis Lemon 1

Lewis Lemon 2

Lewis Lemon 3

Puzzling Requirement, Demotion

But 2004 also brought a new superintendent to the Rockford Public Schools, Dennis Thompson, and a new curriculum director, Martha Hayes.

The new administration required district schools to use “balanced literacy” reading instruction–i.e., “whole language.” In January, the principal who had brought academic success to the students at Lewis Lemon, Tiffany Parker, was abruptly relieved of her instructional duties and transferred to a troubled middle school as assistant principal.

“There is a place for direct instruction in every single school, but it’s not for all kids, and it’s not for all five years,” Hayes told the Register Star.

“Whole-language” instruction, however, does not qualify for approval by the U.S. Department of Education because the department endorses only scientifically based reading programs. According to the parents on the executive PTO board, the decision to bring in a program that has no research to support it “doesn’t make sense.”

“Our third graders had higher reading scores than the district and state averages for the past two years,” they pointed out. “Why would they want to cut a program that has proven to work with our students?”

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is associate editor of School Reform News.