In the second of a series of profiles of USC’s Family of Five Schools, we look at Norwood Street Elementary, where principal Rita Flynn is determined that her kids will learn to read – at grade level – by the third grade.
Norwood School’s “mantra” is “Every child a reader by grade three.” Here, Eric Aguirre, Krystal Jones and Andrea Rodriguez work toward that goal.
miracle occurs every day at Norwood Street Elementary School. Children learn to read.

“Literacy has always been my passion, professionally and personally,” says Norwood principal Rita Flynn.

Not such a miraculous thing for the already literate, to whom reading is almost Zen-like, not thought about, taken for granted. But to witness afresh a six-year-old taking those written-communication baby-steps – decoding consonant and vowel sounds, cutting a mouthful of a word up into more digestible sylla-bites, catching the rhythms of punctuation, “and there are always so many new words!” – is to be touchingly reminded of the wonder of human language.
“Literacy has always been my passion, professionally and personally,” says Norwood principal Rita Flynn, who is currently working on a doctorate at USC’s School of Education, specializing in early literacy research.
“Our commitment to helping every child become a fluent reader by third grade ensures that students have the best chance of success for the rest of their school career and the rest of their lives.”
Norwood Street Elementary is a bright, happy, festive place, a community hub located a few blocks northeast of USC’s University Park Campus at 2020 Oak Street (where it moved from Norwood Street in the 1930s). Open year-round, it educates a student body of 1,200 that is predominately Latino (96 percent), with 2 percent African American and a 2 percent combination of Asian, Native American, Filipino and Caucasian students. It’s in a neighborhood that mixes small, crowded apartments with classic Victorians and well-kept bungalows. Children either walk to school or are brought by family members.
Colorful flowers flanking the sidewalk to the school’s cement-stepped entrance – a pleasure to the eye which delights Flynn – symbolize the strides the school and, with it, the community are making. “The synergy in this neighborhood has caused some extraordinary achievements,” she says. “This is a great community. There are a lot of very positive things happening.”
Through hard work and innovative programs, the Norwood School community is sending a strong message that this inner-city school in the heart of Los Angeles is promoting a standard of excellence.Norwood was recently named one of three finalists for a City of Los Angeles Above and Beyond Award by the Getty House Foundation, which, in addition to overseeing the official residence of the mayor, sponsors a wide range of children’s educational activities. In 1997, Norwood was honored as a California Distinguished School, one of 225 elementary schools named the best among all California public schools. It is a member of USC’s Family of Five Schools – a partnership among the university, five neighborhood schools and a variety of community agencies – and is involved in both the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN) and the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP), two school reform efforts that provide wide latitude for semiautonomous management as well as support for Norwood’s literacy, technology and parental involvement programs.

orwood Street School has been schooling elementary students for a long time (it celebrated its centennial in 1996), using a traditional mix of pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade education: math, science, social studies, geography, art, music. It all begins, however, with reading.
Reading level, according to Flynn and her faculty, is critical. “Our slogan is, ‘Every child a reader by grade three. No matter what!’ ” she emphasizes. “I must know by name each child who is not reading by grade three and make sure support and intervention programs are in place.”

Norwood Street principal Rita Flynn, reading with first grader Karen Aguilar, and her faculty are focused on getting their students to read at grade level by the third grade. “There is no acceptable reason that Norwood should not be among the best-scoring schools in the city of Los Angeles,” she says. “Failure is not an option for our students.”

More precisely, what she means is that every child must not only be a reader by grade three, but a reader at third-grade level. Education professionals refer to it as the gateway year.
“Research has found that if children aren’t reading at grade level by grade three they rarely go to college,” says Frances Goldman, a Los Angeles Uni-fied School Districtteacher for 16 years and Norwood’s coordinator of Title I, the federal program that provides funding to schools with various disadvantages such as poverty and low performance. “That’s why third grade is the focus.”
Successfully passing through the gateway is no small matter. Since many of Norwood’s students begin school without the same skills that children in more affluent areas have, they have to achieve more than one year’s growth each year in order to catch up by third grade.
“Early experiences in literacy are crucial, and for many of our kindergarten students, arrival at school gives them their first experiences with print material,” Goldman says.
But the war on illiteracy is starting to turn. Several first-grade classes are filled with children who are reading, and most of whom are writing.

ike “Every child a reader by grade three,” “on-site capacity” is another Norwood mantra. “We want most of our professional development training to be site-based,” explains Flynn. “We want the expert next door, available all the time.”
Last year alone, 14 Norwood teachers were trained in an intensive program called California Early Literacy Learning. These specially trained teachers then are able to mentor their colleagues.
In one of the city’s “Literacy Net-works” – groups of educators supported by the Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP) – almost 30 teachers (some from other schools but most from Nor-wood) meet monthly to discuss literacy research and current best practices. Norwood teacher Susan Courtney facilitates the group.
“We’re professionals in how we approach our work, striving to use the best data available to support our actions,” she says. “We bring our own experiences to share and examine different strategies and techniques that foster literacy development.”
One focus group is devoted to the use of Socratic practice and seminars as a way of constructing meaning from text while engaging in intellectual conversation. Another finds its members reading and discussing books such as Help America Read: A Handbook for Volunteers and Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children (both by Gay Su Pinnell and Irene C. Fountas).
The teachers also utilize what they consider an effective program called Reading Recovery for interventions with at-risk children who aren’t succeeding in the regular program. Teachers trained with the equivalent of a master’s degree in literacy take first-graders who, in Goldman’s words, “just aren’t getting it” and work with them individually for about 10 weeks. Usually the powerful intervention results in first-grade-level readers.

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