Apr 26


School districts succeeding at reading

Low reading scores are often associated with poverty. But a handful of school districts have beaten the odds with sound instruction and a "can do" culture.

A third grade student raises a hand during Karen Shedrick’s lesson at Cuba-Rushford Elementary. Photo by Garrett Looker

This is the second in a series on literacy in Western New York public schools. The first installment can be found here.

Young children scramble around a gymnasium at Cleveland-Hill Elementary School on a recent night, gazing over tables lined with piles of books — all free for them to take home.

Laia, who’s in the second grade, filled a bag full of new titles, books slightly above her current reading level, “so she can advance and be ahead of the curve as much as she can,” said her mother, Lauren Curuth. 

“We read regularly,” Curuth said. “Now she has even more books to choose from.”

Laia attends a Cheektowaga school district that education experts and advocates say is beating the odds when it comes to literacy.

It’s one of a handful of districts in Western New York saddled with poverty higher than the regional average, yet — unlike most economically disadvantaged districts — boasts above-average student reading and writing scores. 

Another, Cuba-Rushford in Allegany County, has test scores that rival some of the wealthiest school districts in the region.

Cleveland-Hill and Cuba-Rushford have “some of the highest levels of proficiency for their given level of poverty,” said Ken Settles, director of WNY Education Alliance.

Literacy rates for both districts have risen in the last year. Cleveland-Hill saw a 13-point jump to 43 percent in its third-through-fifth grade scores, one of the largest increases in the region.

Cuba-Rushford’s literacy rate inched up, rising from 56 to 57 percent.

On average, 39 percent of Western New York students are reading at grade level.

These two districts, Settles said, stand out because they’ve developed a culture to succeed.

It’s partly the curriculum districts use, particularly the “science of reading,” phonics-based literacy instruction backed by research.

But beyond that, Settles said the teachers have created “a culture . . . of continuous improvement.”

“It’s a focus on getting better and reaching certain students. And you get the buy-in when you get the right leadership,” he said.

Building a culture

On the morning of the first day of spring, a young student entered Cleveland-Hill Elementary for their first day as a Golden Eagle.

The student had been expelled from a previous school, said Jennifer Martin, Cleveland-Hill’s literacy coach. Before starting the day, Martin said she took the young student down the hall to see a mural across from the library. 

“Be the ‘i’ in ‘Kind,’” the mural reads. 

Small things like that create “a culture,” Martin said. “And sometimes, we have to build a level of trust. Maybe they’re coming from a place that they didn’t trust.”

“Possibilities are limitless as long as we are attentive to that child’s needs,” Martin said. “We give them that sense of belonging.”

Cleveland-Hill believes its students — some 1,300 districtwide — can succeed, said Principal Marcie Pascual.

“Being responsive to student needs has been a huge focus,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to teach a child to read until you meet their basic needs.”

Beau the Golden Retriever. Photo by Garrett Looker.

With a student body of just over 700, the Cuba-Rushford district has an average of 15 students per class. The small class size allows the connections and culture between students and teachers to grow, district officials said. 

And it allows for a welcoming environment, evidenced by Beau, a Golden Retriever one teacher brings to school daily. Beau attends recess with students and provides comfort in stressful situations.

“Our teachers know our students really well,” said Jeni Mosher, a former elementary school principal now heading the district’s junior-senior high school. 

“They care about more than just how they’re doing academically, but they know them as individuals," she said. “It really makes it a lot easier to build those relationships with students.”

Carlos Gildemeister, Cuba-Rushford’s superintendent, said the district’s “restorative justice” approach to discipline also leads to students trusting teachers and administrators.

Cuba-Rushford Superintendent Carlos Gildemeister speaks on the impact of restorative justice. Video by Garrett Looker.

When students misbehave, the program, when appropriate, replaces punishment with understanding, showing students the repercussions of their actions, he said.

Students may lash out because of problems at home, Gildemeister said, adding: “Sometimes there’s more need than we realize.” 

In a rural county where some students lack internet access and cell phone reception, the school district takes center stage in the fight against the struggles of poverty, he added.

“We are the central point where kids get access to opportunities in the world that they would never have access to,” Gildemeister said.

Beating the odds

An Investigative Post analysis of the most recent English Language Arts exam results across the region’s 99 school districts found just 39 percent of third through fifth graders reading and writing at grade level.

The analysis also found family income was a key indicator of student success. Students from wealthier backgrounds are more than twice as likely to score at grade level than their economically disadvantaged peers; 54 to 26 percent.

The Cuba-Rushford school district, located nearly 50 miles southeast of Buffalo, is no stranger to the struggles poverty exacerbates. Fifty-eight percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. 

Nonetheless, 57 percent of third-through-fifth grade students were proficient in reading and writing last spring. Regardless of poverty, Cuba-Rushford outperformed the scores of Eden and Lancaster, and rivaled Amherst and East Aurora.

Seventeen percent of Cuba-Rushford’s third-through-fifth grade students scored at level one, the lowest grade on the ELA exam, displaying “insufficient” and “limited” knowledge, skills, and practices expected of them. That’s about half the regional average of 31 percent.

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The Cleveland-Hill school district, located just across the border from Buffalo, is faced with even higher poverty. Sixty-five percent of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged. Cleveland-Hill is the 13th poorest among Western New York’s 99 school districts.

Still, 43 percent of third through fifth graders read and wrote at grade level in 2023. 

Cleveland-Hill’s scores not only exceeded the Western New York average, but they also were higher than Starpoint Central in Lockport, Southwestern Central in Jamestown, and Cheektowaga’s three other school districts.

But Cleveland-Hill’s principal knows there is room to grow: 29 percent of the district’s third-through-fifth graders scored at level one.

Both Cuba-Rushford and Cleveland-Hill are among the region’s 25 poorest districts. 

Learning to teach 

Two years ago, the Cleveland-Hill district changed pieces of its early literacy instruction to reflect the largely phonics-based approach that’s gaining traction in classrooms throughout the nation.

At a faculty training session in March, Pascual dedicated time to better understand the “science of reading.”

Jennifer Martin, Cleveland-Hill Elementary's literacy coach, during a faculty training session. Photo by Garrett Looker.

Training and data analysis is “at the forefront of all the decisions we’re making,” Pascual said.  

That’s what enables teachers to make adjustments when students face struggles that affect their academic performance, educators said.

The curriculum a district chooses is “just a tool, and you’re really the craftsman or craftswoman,” Martin said. “We have to pay attention to our universal screening data, so that no one falls through the cracks.”

Once a week, every week, the faculty of Cuba-Rushford’s elementary school meets in the early morning to discuss topics like curriculum, student emotional needs, and teacher engagement.

The conversations take place over coffee between first-year teachers and veterans with decades of experience, Gildemeister said. 

The keys to the district’s success, Cuba-Rushford officials said, include their communication among teachers and their listening to what students need.

Cuba-Rushford also uses a phonics-based curriculum, particularly in the early grades, school officials said.

No silver bullet

Gov. Kathy Hochul is encouraging all New York schools to adopt the phonics-based “science of reading” program in hopes of improving reading skills throughout the state.

Settles supports the phonics-based approach, but says it isn’t enough.

“There isn’t one magic answer to this,” Settles said.

Instead, it’s about finding the “right combination,” between curriculum, leadership and teachers willing to take a different approach, he said.

Gildemeister calls it “figuring out the puzzle.”

Pascual agrees. 

“Programs don’t teach kids, teachers teach kids,” Pascual said. “So investing in our teachers, making sure they’re equipped with the knowledge, skillset, and wherewithal to be able to be responsive and make those instructional moves to meet the needs of our students, I think we will be able to get there.”

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