Planning for Progress: How John A. Johnson Achieved the Second Highest Reading Growth Rate in its District

JAJ principal, Elizabeth Cherek, shares about her school's experience with STEP.

John A. Johnson Achievement Plus (JAJ) is a neighborhood school in St. Paul, Minnesota. When Elizabeth Cherek joined JAJ in 2014 as a grant manager, almost 90 percent of the school’s students were not considered proficient in reading according to their state’s annual assessment. Before joining JAJ, Cherek worked at the District’s Office of Early Learning. It was then that she became familiar with UChicago Impact’s Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress (STEP) literacy system and saw firsthand the student outcomes it produced. Based on her experience with STEP, Cherek and the school’s former principal decided to implement STEP in their school to improve student reading outcomes.

After an initial planning year with the STEP team from UChicago Impact, JAJ implemented STEP in its PreK through 1st grade classrooms in 2016-17 and then adopted the system school-wide the following year.   

Cherek is now the principal at JAJ and is committed to supporting teachers in improving students’ reading skills through the use of STEP data and professional learning. Read on for an interview with Principal Cherek about JAJ’s experience with STEP.

Before implementing STEP, what challenge was your school facing in regard to literacy and reading outcomes?

I used to do a lot of data analysis with the tool we used before STEP, especially around comprehension. Looking at the big data picture, you would see students with super high fluency, really high word recognition, but then nobody was passing the state assessment and it was because students couldn't comprehend anything.

So we had amazing word callers and a lot of kids who were great decoders, but teachers were lacking support in how to have comprehension conversations with students and information on which students needed that support. I think that is one of the things that STEP and the professional development has done for us—all of the data that we get tells us exactly what our kids need.

What was your approach for implementation and how did you and your colleagues plan for that change?

Before our official implementation, we did a planning year with the STEP team. That year gave us the advantage of being thoughtful in planning out professional development based on what our teachers and students needed most. If we didn’t have that planning year, we would not have known, according to our data, that we didn't have kids with high-frequency words, for example.

Also, while our first year of implementation was just PreK through first grade, we started doing schoolwide training and getting teachers from the higher grades ready for implementation the next year. We had everybody implement word walls across the school. So even though there were teachers in our building who hadn’t implemented STEP in their classrooms yet, they still participated in all of the professional development focused on best practices in guided reading, matching books to readers, and so on. This helped us set the stage for the schoolwide implementation the following year.

How has access to STEP data coupled with STEP professional learning impacted your teachers’ instructional practices?

I think what has meant the most to teachers is the confidence they’ve gained through STEP professional learning. We’ve had people say, ‘I thought I knew how to teach reading before, but I really didn't and now I do’ or ‘I feel more confident in what I'm doing with my students because I know exactly what I need to teach them.’

As an elementary teacher, you're more of a generalist unless you've done your reading license or other continued education. Outside of that, it's hard to get that extra information and reading expertise. STEP has provided teachers the opportunity to have continuous years of professional learning that helps them dig deeper and strengthen their practice.

What results have you seen since implementing STEP?

In 2017, at the start of our STEP implementation, 11 percent of our students were considered proficient in reading. Most of our students, from preschool up through fifth grade, were performing somewhere between kindergarten and first-grade levels.

One year later, in 2018, we experienced 7 percent overall growth for our third, fourth, and fifth graders on our state assessment. That was the second-highest growth in the entire district. Third grade went from 9 to 14.5 percent, fourth grade from 11 to 15 percent, and fifth grade went from 14 to 25 percent proficiency.

We directly correlate that to STEP and the work we did with UChicago Impact. Through professional development, teachers helped students gain more sight words, which was something we found was holding them back—they didn't have a big enough bank of sight words. Teachers also dug into the word work and all of the different word solving strategies, which was another factor holding kids back.

Overall, we're seeing kids move and, even if they're not moving three steps across the year, we're seeing them make progress. Our students are growing because teachers know exactly what to teach them. Our past assessments didn’t give teachers that diagnostic information and I just feel like that has been the biggest advantage—our teachers know exactly what kids need when they need it.