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Jackson schools using federal stimulus funds to improve reading; Cape using money to help autistic students
Once Cecily Fliege got a squirmy first-grader to sit down on a cafeteria stool at South Elementary School in Jackson, the student quickly started going through the reading booklet. His finger slid across the page as he pronounced sounds, each preparing him for words found later in the book.
Once he started struggling, Fliege jumped in.
"My turn -- al," she said.
"Our turn -- al," they said in unison.
"Your turn," she said, pausing.
"Al," he said in response.
The sequence of repetition is part of the Response to Intervention in Reading program at the Jackson School District. Volunteers like Fliege, a district parent and education major at Southeast Missouri State University, work one-on-one with students to improve their reading skills.
When school districts passed their budgets in June, they started allocating stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The federal funds funneled into local schools through the state in two ways -- special education funding and Title 1 funds, which help low-income and at-risk students. Districts, including Jackson and Cape Girardeau, have two years to spend the money under guidelines for both categories.
The Jackson School District used part of its stimulus money to launch the reading intervention program. Coordinator Marsha Sander travels to four elementary schools four days a week. Sander, who previously taught fourth grade in the district, works with teachers and administrators to identify struggling first-grade readers. Students attend 50 45-minute sessions with a volunteer.
The program uses research-based reading materials, which were bought with the stimulus money. It uses repetition and advancement through a structured list of books, which build on skills. The structure and repetition can be cumbersome for volunteers, but the system works, Sander said.
"The part that keeps bringing people back is that 'aha' moment," she said.
Because the program draws from a large volunteer base, the district has plans for the program to sustain itself after the stimulus money is gone, assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher. Trained fifth-grade students and community members work with the first-grade students.
"Anything that we did had to be something that would be self-supporting after those two years," Fisher said.
The program builds on but does not replace what students learn in the classroom, Sander said. By the end of the year, she estimated one-fourth of the first-grade students at South will go through the program. She is also implementing it at Orchard Drive, North and Gordonville schools. The district already has reading teachers to help students who are falling behind in reading, but the new program gives more support to more students, Fisher said.
"We needed some way to reach more of our students," she said.
The district also used stimulus funds to expand its preschool program, which is leasing space at New McKendree United Methodist Church, across from South Elementary.
The Cape Girardeau School District used part of its funding to expand services to its growing autistic population. The district has 47 educationally diagnosed autistic students, said Angie Kester, the district autism coach.
"No two of them are the same; therefore, we need 47 different programs," she said.
With the use of stimulus funds, Kester, a special-education teacher with the district for 16 years, moved into a full-time autism consultant position. She received additional training from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to take on the new program. Kester helps teachers develop plans for autistic students. She visits about two schools per day and also schedules evaluations. She buys equipment with the stimulus money as needs arise.
"Teachers know what they're doing and how to do it; they just need someone to bounce ideas off of," she said.
Before, Cape Girardeau had an in-district employee who helped with autistic students on an as-needed basis, Kester said. The program allows the district to more quickly address the needs of autistic students, she said.
The new program will add continuity throughout the district, said Deena Ring, the district's director of special services.
"She's here every day, so you know how to get ahold of her," she said.
The district started the program with the intention of continuing it, Ring said. Money will be shifted to accommodate the extra costs after two years of stimulus funding ends, she said.
Both Jackson and Cape Girardeau school districts used a large chunk of the money on new technology. Some of the funds bought classroom tools like white boards and projectors, and part of the money bought technology to help students with special needs.
The Jackson School District bought 90 laptops for the middle, junior and high schools and software licenses for all the district buildings, said Dr. Beth Emmendorfer, associate superintendent. The software program reads text to students with reading disabilities while highlighting the words. While students continue working on reading skills with special-education teachers, they can continue to progress in other content areas like science and social studies, she said.
"You do see increased dropout rates with students with disabilities because it is frustrating to go into the secondary level and not be able to read the content," Emmendorfer said.
Similarly, the Cape Girardeau School District bought about 10 word processors for students who lack fine motor skills. The district also invested in reading software and is buying laptops as needed, said Mandy Deimund, an assistive technology coordinator.
"Now we're able to reduce a lot of that dependence on an adult or another peer," she said. Districts work through Missouri Assistive Technology, a state program that lends technology to districts so they can determine what students need before buying costly equipment. It also provides grants to buy equipment.
With stimulus money, the district is expanding its library of technology to draw from.
"We're going to have a huge bank of technology built up to assess our kids," she said.
301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO
614 E. Adams St., Jackson, MO
Stimulus money budgets
Student transportation: $62,022
Instructional technology and supplies: $201,389
Professional development: $81,731
Instructional technology and supplies: $768,920
Professional development: $3,088
Instructional technology and supplies: $56,950
Software and equipment for assistive technology: $444,870
Professional development: $158,213
Source: Jackson and Cape Girardeau school districts