Ranch School’s literacy program ahead of many districts to meet Common Core Standards next year

By RSF Education Foundation

Schools across the nation are scrambling to implement the new national Common Core Standards by 2014. For most schools, this is a huge shift from the California state standards that have been in place, particularly in the area of literacy. Fortunately teachers and students at the R. Roger Rowe School (Ranch School) are prepared for the change. This is due to the school’s affiliation with the Columbia University/Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and the incredible literacy staff the school enjoys. “We are so far ahead of many districts” noted Maureen Cassarino, one of two literacy coaches and a middle school literacy teacher.

The Ranch School’s Literacy Program is enhanced by a grant from the RSF Education Foundation. The grant helps fund two fully credentialed Literacy Coaches to support on-going staff development and five fully credentialed Literacy Support Teachers to reduce the teacher to student ratio to 1:10 each day during the literacy block. This is the ninth year of the literacy support program and the sixth year of literacy coaches to train classroom teachers. “As a teacher who has taught for 30 years in many places in our nation and the world, I have come to realize and appreciate the extraordinary literacy program we have at our school,” remarked 4th Grade Teacher Harriet Joslyn.

Reading and writing at the Ranch School

Children in K through 4th grade have a one hour reading block each day, as well as writing and phonics or word study at other times of the day. During the reading block a literacy support teacher works with students in the classroom with their grade level teacher. “Having smaller classes with an ‘extra’ teacher in our literacy block allows us to have frequent, timely, substantive feedback and assessment of each student’s work. We have the time to develop individual instructional relationships with our students and to devise creative curricula that honor individual learning styles,” noted Joslyn. “The students also have effective interaction with their peers regarding oral and written work and ample time to develop critical and reflective thinking.”

Jennifer Overstreet, a new 4th grade teacher who previously taught in the San Diego schools, commented, “With the help of Kim McCowan, my Literacy Support teacher, we are able to constantly monitor my students’ reading abilities and plan lessons based on their areas of need. We are able to meet with every child at least three times a week in a small group setting, where students are provided with strategic instruction. Without a literacy support teacher, I would only be able to meet with two small groups a day. This means that we can work with over twice as many students in one reading block.”

“We are teaching students to be independent,” noted Literacy Coach Lindsey Donaldson. In addition to their structured learning time, students have 30 minutes of independent reading time each day from a book of their choice. Most schools use a Basal reader; a one size fits all anthology with workbook instruction for each grade level. All children at the Ranch School are reading books they choose at their own guided reading level, not reading a set of books that every other child in their grade is reading.

In the 5th through 8th grades, students have more minutes of reading and writing than most other middle schools in San Diego County. “In each class we address two strategies and teach points around something everyone can use,” said Cassarino. “For example, in one class we discussed the power of three. How authors tend to group things in three, such as characters or settings. Then when students are reading they start to notice it.” With the Columbia model and small class sizes teachers spend more individual time with students. “I can do small group work. I can talk with my students 1:1 every day and ask them “What are you thinking about this book?’”Cassarino added. “I wish someone had taught me the way I am teaching these students.”

What are the new standards?

Common Core focuses on fewer standards, but at a much more rigorous level. “They address what students need to know at the college and career readiness level and map it backwards from 12th grade to kindergarten,” noted Cassarino. Previously every state had its own standards. While transitioning to Common Core will take a tremendous amount of dedication and effort on the part of the entire school community, additional staff members such as literacy coaches and literacy support teachers make this work easier to accomplish than in many other districts. The focus on the common standards should simplify things as well. “I love it,” added Cassarino. “It takes a lot of guess work out of it.”

Greater emphasis on informational text in reading and writing

Donaldson said, “With Common Core the biggest challenge will be in the shift to reading 50 percent informational text and 50 percent narrative. The reading will be very analytical.” In the past the students have read a smaller percentage of informational text and had to relate what they thought about it. “With Common Core, students need to know what the author is really trying to teach and what ways he is trying to teach it,” she added. There is a deepening level of instruction. “By the 6th grade, students are expected to find multiple ideas and find evidence to support those ideas by citing examples from text and across texts.”

Middle school students will also have greater emphasis on non-fiction. Eighth grade students are working on a non-fiction unit this month. They are reading books about the Holocaust and can choose their own books from historical fiction, memoirs or non-fiction. “The goal is for students to read 250 pages per week at the 8th grade level,” noted Cassarino. Several years ago middle school students were reading six books per year in their language arts class. She added, “My kids are engaged. That’s the magic!”

Shift in what students write

The volume of writing also increases with Common Core. Students will now be required to do process pieces, short on demand pieces, as well as revise and edit their writing with a partner and independently. Writing at all grade levels will be split equally between narrative, informational (non-fiction), and opinion/persuasive. There are all new writing units. Currently, 8th graders are writing non-fiction books. At the middle school level students learn literary analysis. Cassarino elaborated, “They need to come up with thesis statements, compare and contrast text, cite text and write essays.” The good news is that we are closer to Common Core than many districts because of the way we have worked with our students to date.

Training teachers for Common Core

As literacy coaches, Donaldson and Cassarino work one on one with each teacher on an area of choice as well as with each grade level team. For example, with Common Core there are new informational text standards for the fifth graders. “The teachers have to think about and teach differently,” noted Donaldson. “As teachers we have to think about ourselves as readers. As part of a professional development workshop for the fifth grade teachers, we are reading an article together and practicing the skill the children have to master,” she added.

Overstreet commented “For the first month of school Lindsey Donaldson was in my room every day to help me properly launch reading and writing workshop. Her expertise and guidance enabled me to set a solid foundation for the reading and writing work that will be taking place in my classroom for the rest of the year. Every teacher here has access to a group of reading and writing experts that are here to support us and the students in any way they can. Each grade level has the opportunity to meet with Lindsey every week, where she helps us with every reading and writing unit we teach.”

“Having a literacy support teacher that comes into your classroom everyday is unheard of!,” she added. “Unfortunately literacy coaches, literacy support teachers and reading specialists/interventionists don’t exist at schools that I have been at in the past. This all rests solely on the classroom teacher. I believe that their support and the professional development/coaching that is offered to classroom teachers are key to the literacy success at RSF.”

Joslyn concurred, “The literacy coaches are indispensable! We are especially fortunate to have Lindsey Donaldson who keeps us working diligently forward at all times.”

In February, four representatives from the Ranch School will attend a professional development workshop at Teacher’s College to learn about reading and writing informational text around Common Core. Teacher’s College has already done a lot of the work of integrating Common Core into their program which will benefit the Ranch School. “We are so far ahead,” noted Donaldson.

Generous grant from Foundation funds specialized literacy staff

In addition to the small class sizes, the RSF Education Foundation funds the seven specialized literacy professionals that support our school. We need the support of every family as well as community and corporate donations. If you have not yet made your contribution, please do so today. For questions or more information, please go to or contact the Education Foundation at 858-756-1141 x208. Be Proud to Participate. “the difference is you”