COLUMBUS — Kasey Hansen’s focus this semester is straightforward.
She was hired as an interventionist at Shell Creek Elementary School to improve students’ reading skills and raise standardized test scores.
Hansen, who student taught at Platte Center Elementary School last semester and graduated from Wayne State College in December with a degree in elementary education, will spend each day with struggling students until the final bell rings in May.
The goal is to target children who are below or just above the proficiency level on the state’s reading assessment.
This strategy, and the position itself, are direct responses to a label placed on the school in late 2011 as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Shell Creek is one of a growing number of Nebraska schools classified as “persistently low-achieving” because of their failure to meet increasingly tougher benchmarks on standardized reading and math tests. Emerson Elementary School was also one of the 96 Nebraska schools that made the list for 2011-12 based on test scores from the 2010-11 school year.
The designation comes with a mandate for improvement or the threat of eliminating Title I money provided to schools with a high number of poverty-level students.
At Shell Creek — which was given a Tier III classification, the category of least concern — poor test scores among poverty-level students prompted the federal intervention.
Now, the school is leaning on Hansen to help erase this label.
The process started in early January when the new interventionist met with Principal John Mlinar and other teachers to identify the “bubble” students who could use a boost to their test scores. They came up with four to six names in each grade, then focused on determining what specific reading skills each student was lacking, such as fluency, comprehension or vocabulary.
Hansen, whose position is funded with a more than $20,000 federal school improvement grant, works closely with two resource teachers and a pair of staff members serving in interventionist-type roles funded by both district and Title I money.
She believes the 30-minute blocks carved out each day provide an extra level of instruction that can’t be reached in the normal classroom setting.
Hansen said working with small groups, typically five or fewer students, allows her to gain a better understanding of each child’s present reading level. Deficiencies are then targeted with specific, in-depth instruction.
Her classroom is also a place where quiet or shy students often become more vocal.
“They feel like they can express themselves in here,” Hansen said.
Although the No. 1 goal is to improve test scores, Mlinar said other benefits include raising students’ confidence levels and classroom participation, increased success in the school’s Accelerated Reader program and better grades in other subjects such as science and social studies, which require a significant amount of reading.
“We’re hoping to see a more well-rounded student that’s more confident and better in all those academic areas,” he said.
In addition to hiring Hansen, Shell Creek also installed other direct instruction programs aimed at struggling readers and adjusted teaching strategies to keep students engaged. Reading is also being worked into computer classes.
“We’re trying to do a comprehensive array of things to help all kids read,” said Mlinar.
To be removed from the persistently low-achieving list a school must meet testing standards for two consecutive years, something Mlinar isn’t confident Shell Creek can accomplish.
Although scores there improved from 2010-11 to 2011-12 — about 75 percent of the students were proficient in reading on last year’s test, according to Mlinar — he said a poor-performing subgroup will keep the label in place through at least the next school year.
Then a major obstacle arrives as the federal benchmarks become stricter, requiring 100 proficiency in reading and math.
“Our actual chances of getting off the PLAS list are probably almost nothing because we have to be essentially perfect by the end of 2014,” said Mlinar. “That’s likely an unrealistic goal.”
Instead, he said, the school set a goal of improving its proficiency level every year and a district benchmark is to be at or above the state averages.
Shell Creek will likely receive more federal funding to focus on reading improvement next school year, but Mlinar expects the amount to shrink as more schools join the low-achieving list.
An interventionist position funded in 2011-12 with an alternate source proved to be beneficial, he said. However, the school board chose not to cover the costs for this year.
Mlinar said he’d like to see the position extended into 2013-14 if the same successes are seen this year, even if it means using some district dollars.
“We think we have a little bit of a formula here that showed some positive results,” he said.