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Westside earns all A’s in reading

At the beginning of the school year, in August, Westside Elementary School and U.S. Jones Elementary School adapted Harcourt Publishing’s “Story Town” reading program. Now, just five months later, Westside has become the authority on the program for kindergarten through second grade.

Several schools from across the state have sent teachers and advisors to the school to observe how Westside implements the program. In fact, it was that attention that prompted the school to contact Harcourt and send a representative to make sure that they were showing other schools the correct way to use the program.

“They are looking to see if we are implementing the program and having it in place like it was designed to be,” said regional reading coach Debbie Butler. “We think we are, but we just want confirmation that things are going well.

“We asked them to come to be sure we are doing everything exactly right, because we are modeling for a lot of other schools, and we want to be sure they get what they are supposed to get.”

Jennifer Travis, a reading consultant with Harcourt Publishing, visited the school on Thursday to observe the teachers and students using the program. She toured Westside’s classrooms with Butler and regional reading coach James Pope, observing the students and teachers using the reading program.

Travis was very impressed with what she saw, and gave Westside the equivalent of an A-plus with a smiley-face sticker.

“(Harcourt) had asked me what other schools they could call on for examples, and I could not give them one before I visited here,” Travis said. “I told them that, if anybody asked me that again, it would be Westside Elementary in Demopolis. It was unbelievable. I was blown away. They really are doing a good job, and they should be commended for it.”

Westside has been visited by several schools in December and January to follow the success seen with “Story Town” and to emulate it for their own students.

“Last year was the ‘adoption year’ for the reading series,” said WES principal Connie Brown. “Our staff did an in-depth study of several that were recommended by the state. This was the one we felt covered the five components of reading most completely. Then, our reading coaches delved into the program and began preparing for intensive development training for our staff.

“(The teachers) came during the summer (for the training), and that shows the accountability of our staff and their dedication. Before school started, they prepared their rooms — because there is a room design — preparing new materials and just getting into the core program and how it runs. We had planning meetings on Fridays to keep us all on the same page.”

Because of its success, the school applied for the Alabama Reading Association’s Exemplary Reading Program Award. Those applications were received at the national level, then whittled down to four or five nominees in each state. Westside Elementary is one of only four elementary schools in Alabama in the running for that prestigious honor.

“That speaks highly of our reading program,” Brown said. “That’s not just for this year. They put in longitudinal information that shows that, no matter what reading program we teach here, our teachers have a high level of accountability, and we have a high level of success with whatever reading program we’re doing.”

As other school systems send representatives to Westside Elementary, the school’s reputation as a leader in the state in reading success will continue to grow. It speaks well for a school to not only teach its children well, but to be able to teach other schools as well.