The Little School on the Prairie: an exclusive interview with Victoria Martino

Published February 1, 2004

Victoria Martino knew students at her school were doing well. After all, she had co-founded the little school on the prairie, Mountain View Academy in Greeley, Colorado, simply to be able to teach using a highly effective instructional program. But even she couldn’t believe the Stanford Achievement Test results they received at the end of the school’s second year of operation in 1995-96. The students’ scores in all grades were in the top 10 percent in the nation. A call to the scoring hotline confirmed the results.

Martino really wasn’t surprised at achieving such outstanding results, nor were the three other teachers who had joined her in establishing the nonprofit, nonsectarian, private school in 1994. All had considerable prior experience teaching in the public schools and all had successfully used the instructional program they were using at Mountain View Academy for six years in the public schools. They knew the program worked. In fact, it was their belief in the effectiveness of the instructional program that was the prime reason for opening the school.

That belief has become a reality. The students at Mountain View Academy have continued, year after year, to score in the top 10 percent of the nation. For the students, 25 percent of whom are low-income, this high level of achievement opens up a broader range of career opportunities, the likelihood of better-paying jobs, and the prospect of living lives that are richer intellectually and culturally.

For Martino and the teachers at the school, the rewards also have been great. Their achievement was recognized by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige last September when he named Mountain View Academy a 2003 recipient of the No Child Left Behind–Blue Ribbon School Award. The award recognizes schools for outstanding achievement, such as dramatically improving student test scores or scoring in the top 10 percent of schools in the nation. Mountain View Academy was one of only 47 private schools in the nation to receive the award.

Martino, a director of Mountain View Academy, started her teaching career in public schools in Pennsylvania after receiving a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in early childhood education. Subsequently, she and her husband moved to Colorado, where she taught in public schools in Greeley and then, for the past 10 years, at Mountain View Academy. Martino recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What motivated you to start your own school?

Martino: People come up to me and say, “Oh, this must have been a lifelong dream!” It wasn’t. I had been teaching in public schools for 23 years and I would have been perfectly happy to stay for the rest of my career at the public school where I was teaching if we had been given one track for the curriculum we wanted to teach. That didn’t seem like much to ask out of a four-track school, but even that was too much.

It started about 15 years ago. There were four of us teaching at one of the elementary schools in Greeley and we had come across a phonics-based curriculum that was based on sound research, and we started looking into it on our own. Most of the teachers in our building were completely Whole Language advocates and did not believe in phonemic awareness, but I had been trained in phonemic awareness and its effectiveness back East.

When I read the research on the curriculum in Project Follow-Through, which was one of the largest government-funded educational experiments in the history of the U.S. Department of Education, I thought, “This sounds almost too good to be true–this Direct Instruction approach is everything you ever need to know about teaching someone to read in a very systematic, sequential program.” After I had paid to take the Direct Instruction training in Eugene, Oregon, I concluded it was the best program available for children in the United States.

Within our public school, we started using the program and became more effective teachers. Our students were excelling. But the Whole Language teachers didn’t want anything to do with Direct Instruction and this created a huge division.

Clowes: Why were they against it?

Martino: I think they were somewhat threatened by it, but I think mostly they didn’t understand it. Once you really understand what Dr. Siegfried Engelmann did in developing this program, his genius–and it is pure genius–just unfolds as you’re teaching. Every year that you teach, you get more insight into how it works, and you are more in awe of the program than ever before–how quickly and easily it helps you as a teacher facilitate teaching young children how to read.

Another concern people have with Direct Instruction is how it holds teachers accountable. Engelmann has said that if the child can understand English and understand commands in English and has a good grasp of the English language, we can teach every child to read. If the child doesn’t learn, it’s the teacher’s and the administration’s fault. When you say that, you’re getting into the big “A” word– Accountability–that the teacher unions and the administrators don’t want to mention. That’s why some schools that have had great success with Direct Instruction have stopped using the program.

We taught the program for six years. The longer we did, the more unprofessional coworkers became. We offered to help them, but they weren’t interested. It got to be very uncomfortable. Teachers who were telling students to become life-long learners and always to be open-minded, weren’t open-minded themselves and were trying to stop the use of the program.

By this time, a number of teachers had been trained in Direct Instruction and we had one track out of four, kindergarten through fifth grade, in the program. Parents were requesting our classes because our students were excelling. We suggested giving the parents that “C” word–Choice–but the principal would not agree.

At that point, I considered leaving teaching altogether, but when I said I would love to teach a small kindergarten class on my own using Direct Instruction, my husband started looking for a room to rent for me to teach my own private kindergarten. When word of this slipped out, three other teachers who were teaching the Direct Instruction program said they wanted to come with me. So my husband started looking for a small building to rent. When we realized there wasn’t a facility in our area that would be acceptable for a school, we started looking for land and purchased six acres.

We put four portable buildings on our land, left the public system, and opened the doors of Mountain View Academy in September of 1994. In 1998 we built our existing permanent facility.

Clowes: Does the Direct Instruction curriculum include science and social studies as well as reading and math?

Martino: There isn’t a separate curriculum in science. At the middle school level, there is an American History curriculum.

The reason there isn’t a separate science program is in the first two years of Direct Instruction, the rule of thumb is, you learn to read. After the first two years in Direct Instruction, then you read to learn. In Reading Mastery 3, a third-grade-level reader, students read to learn. All of the stories in Reading Mastery 3 and Reading Mastery 4 are very factual stories about science, social studies, history, and geography. The children are still increasing their reading fluency and mastery, but they are learning facts and increasing their knowledge.

Clowes: What is the philosophy behind Direct Instruction?

Martino: “Every child can learn. Every child can be successful, and every teacher can be an effective teacher.”

What the Direct Instruction curriculum really does is prevent teachers from re-inventing the wheel, like so many teachers have to do with certain curricula. In Core Knowledge, for example, you’re given the outcomes they want the children to know, but they don’t provide the process of how to get there. As a result, the teacher is constantly sharing lesson plans and going to lesson plan conventions.

That’s not the way it is with Direct Instruction. Direct Instruction is a fine-tuned program that is field-tested. Every lesson is thoroughly field-tested before publication. It’s equivalent to a de-bugged computer program. In fact, our school did some field testing for Direct Instruction at our third- and fourth-grade levels. A teacher would teach a lesson, and provide feedback to the authors on what went well and what didn’t.

Clowes: One of the major criticisms of the program is that it doesn’t allow for teacher creativity.

Martino: But it does. Each teacher puts his or her own personality into it. Direct Instruction lets you be creative because you are not drained by trying to put together lesson plans, or trying to decide what book would be best. Every manual the teacher needs is included in one kit for a specific subject.

What people don’t realize is that practice is required in academics just as much as it is in sports or in music. No one thinks there’s anything wrong with a Tiger Woods going out and hitting perhaps a thousand balls with one club to practice one stroke. Or with a pianist practicing a musical piece over and over for a concert. Yet when it comes to academics, it’s almost heresy to have students memorize their times tables or any other facts.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing children to mastery before you take them to the next level. What’s so great about Direct Instruction is that every day’s lesson is the foundation for tomorrow. Hence, every year’s lesson is the foundation for the following year. The program is very sequential by design so there are no gaps or overlaps in instruction.

Clowes: What about a child’s readiness to learn? What has been your experience in taking children with widely varying abilities when they come into kindergarten?

Martino: We do get children who have been exposed to a wide range of preschool and day care situations, but it really doesn’t matter as long as the children are old enough–almost six with boys and at least five and a half with girls. I have found that the pacesetters in my class are the children that have the cognitive development and the ability to listen to something for 10 minutes and stay on track. Direct Instruction at this level is fast-paced and very aggressive. When children are ready to learn they are self-motivated, learning is easy for them, and they love it. They’re unstoppable.

I would rather have an average student that was very mature than a very bright student that was very immature. The only way that maturation develops is over time. I encourage parents to give their children the gift of time at this young age.

I assess every incoming child in the spring to see how many pre-skills I need to teach before I get into the curriculum proper. We group students at our school by ability so I use the Direct Instruction placement test to make sure that everyone in the classroom places in the level that I use.

Clowes: What are your test results like?

Martino: We use the Stanford Achievement Test, which tells our parents how our students are doing compared to other private schools in the nation. Our test results from the very first year we tested were phenomenal. We couldn’t believe it at first. We knew we were working hard, but we were taking every possible child that wanted to be here. We took children who had been labeled Special Education for five years in the public sector. Within a year and a half the students were at grade level. We took anybody and everybody. We worked hard with remediations and regular teaching and corrective programs, and we worked hard to prove to people that this curriculum really does work.

Our test scores in 1996 were wonderful, above the 90th percentile, which is where they’ve stayed ever since. We take in the same children that go to the local public schools where bright children are just doing average on state tests.

I regard myself as a public school teacher because I deal with the public. I don’t like the tug-of-war that people create of private vs. public, nonsectarian vs. sectarian, one against the other. There should be only one distinction between schools–schools that are highly effective and schools that aren’t effective.

Clowes: What does it cost parents to send a child to your school?

Martino: For comparison, the average per-pupil expenditure for Colorado public schools is $7,016. The cost at Mountain View Academy for first grade through sixth grade is $5,300 a year. In addition, there are book and assessment fees that total $280 dollars. Kindergarten is $4,500 a year and Pre-K is $2,500. Most of our tuition goes to pay salaries and benefits. Facility costs and property taxes are our next largest expenditure.

We’re the little school on the prairie, the “Pioneers.” We’re doing what has never been done before in our area: a nonprofit, nonsectarian, independent day-school producing scores that are in the top 10 percent of the country. Yet we are always struggling for scholarship money. We’re in an agricultural area and we have a lot of poor farm children who want to be at our school and who need scholarships. When we opened, we received a grant from a local philanthropic family but since that ran out, we have been searching for scholarship funds in addition to the fundraising our parents do.

Here we are, one of the best schools in the nation located in northern Colorado, a National Blue Ribbon School, and yet we’re scrambling for funds every single day. We’re producing what the President says schools should be producing. Unfortunately, our scholarship demands are always more than what we have to offer. Sometimes we have to turn families away due to lack of scholarship funds and that’s really hard.

For more information …

Mountain View Academy’s 2003 No Child Left Behind–Blue Ribbon School application is available online at