On Thursday, James Lukose’s seventh grade class at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Catholic Academy has a test on the last book they read in English language arts, a novel about a Holocaust survivor.
And down in first grade, students are reading about Rosa Parks and the racial barriers she broke during segregation. At this school reading isn’t just a subject – it’s everything.
“It’s going to take them from the world they’re in just even for a brief moment and allow them to be something more, dream bigger,” said principal Anne Zuschlag.
Zuchslag has been principal of the school for 30 years, she’s seen thousands of students graduate, all with a love of reading, and the school’s reading scores reflect that.
On the English language arts state exam, of all fourth graders in New York City’s public schools 43.6 percent are meeting or exceeding the standards set for their grade, at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs it’s 66.6 percent. For sixth grade there was a nearly 37 percent difference, and for seventh graders a 30 percent difference. The Diocese of Brooklyn as a whole outperformed doe schools in all three grades.
“We’re never really satisfied with where are kids are performing and I think that that drives us,” Zuschlag said.
James says in class reading is part of every subject and his teachers keep him interested.
“We’re either learning ELA in a packet, or reading a chapter of our book or doing online activities about the book itself, it’s like every day is something different,” he said.
When Marybeth McManus, the seventh and eighth grade ELA teacher, has 30 kids all with different interests working on the same assignment she modifies each lesson to highlight individual strengths.
“I see what’s working and what’s not working, I try not to do basic comprehension questions, I do questions that engage the students, we do a lot of group participation as well, what’s going on with the character, what are the conflicts in the book, just to try to keep them engaged,” she said.
Recently, New York City announced it would be changing its approach to reading instruction, instead of relying on context to help kids comprehend, it would be getting back to basics and utilizing a phonics-based curriculum, the one Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and the Diocese of Brooklyn never strayed from.
“Phonics is a really worthwhile approach for many children and so to have denied them the opportunity to use that strategy is unfortunate so I’m grateful they’re recognizing what we’ve known all along, we can adopt new things all the time but we don’t have to leave behind proven strategies,” Zuschlag said.
And even James can see how his teachers have been building on his reading skills from early on.
“In first grade I learned sounding out words and how to pronounce them and then in 2nd and 3rd I learned phonics and sight words and from 4th to now I learned reading strategies and writing strategies and how to comprehend and write a paragraph about a book,” he said.
And what numbers will never show is the excitement a new book can bring and how far reading will take these kids.
“It’s really devoted to a love of reading, for us if they’re happy and comfortable readers that are going to read life-long,” said Zuschlag. “We feel we’ve done our work.”