Making the Most of Opportunities:

Close-Up Views of a SAGE Program

A Report of the Collaborative Action Research Project of the SAGE Program

at Webster Stanley Elementary School, Oshkosh, WI, 1999-2000

Dr. Ava L. McCall

UW Oshkosh professor of Social Studies Methods and

Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction

Research Question

The focus of my research was to provide an indepth portrayal of the SAGE Program in action at Webster Stanley Elementary School during the 1999-2000 school year. More specifically, how did teachers use the opportunities provided by the SAGE Program to meet students' needs and enhance their learning? How did the SAGE teachers teach differently to benefit students with only 15 students in a one-teacher classroom or 25 students in a team taught classroom? What did the rigorous curriculum look like in action and how did the curriculum lead to greater learning?

Background to the Study

Educators are increasingly alarmed at the lack of academic achievement among students of color and low-income students. In an effort to bolster low-income students' academic achievement in Wisconsin, the state legislature funded the SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) program beginning during the 1996-97 academic year. To be eligible, schools must have at least a 30% poverty rate; agree to reduce class size to 15 students per teacher in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms; keep the school open from early in the morning to late in the evening to house a variety of services for students' families and community members; develop a rigorous curriculum to promote students' academic achievement; and create a professional development plan (State of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 9/95). Program evaluations of the first two years documented that first-grade students in SAGE schools scored significantly higher on reading, language arts, and mathematics standardized tests than students in comparison schools. SAGE teachers reported more student-centered teaching, a greater focus on teaching students as individuals, increased awareness of students' learning needs, and more time spent on instruction rather than discipline (Molnar, Smith, Zahorik, Palmer, Halbach & Erle, 1999). However, researchers continue to call for more studies on how small classes lead to higher student achievement (Nye, Hedges & Konstantopoulos, 1999).

Overview of the School and Community

Fifty percent of the student population at Webster Stanley Elementary School are considered low-income and eligible for free or reduced lunch and breakfast and 30% of the students have limited English proficiency (mostly Hmong). Webster Stanley is one of the most diverse among the 16 public elementary schools in the community and the only school to participate in the SAGE Program during 1998-2000.

The community in which the school exists has a population of approximately 60,000 with a strong German American influence and few people of color. Hmong immigrants began settling in the community during the 1980s and currently number approximately 3500. The influx of Hmong immigrants with limited English skills significantly influenced the local school district, especially necessitating the creation of English as a Second Language programs. Although the community has traditionally been blue-color, with the greatest employment opportunities in manufacturing, an increasing number of occupations are available in educational, health, and governmental services.

Research Methods

I used the qualitative methods of collaborative action research, which involves teachers/researchers working together to investigate their own or others' teaching and students' learning in order to improve their educational practices and the quality of students' learning experiences (Elliott; 1991; Sagor, 1992). I regularly observed six "regular" SAGE classrooms (one kindergarten, three first-grade, and two second-grade) one morning or afternoon a month during the school year and recorded my observations in field notes on a computer. I also observed the classrooms of the Reading Resource teacher, the Reading Recovery teacher, and the English as a Second Language teacher a few times during this period. Additionally, my research assistant videotaped teaching/learning activities in these classrooms. To supplement classroom observations, I interviewed most classroom teachers, the ESL, Reading Resource, and Reading Recovery teacher from one to three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the school year. In order to triangulate the data, I interviewed the principal, a sample of students from kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, and a sample of parents whose children were involved in the SAGE Program. The research assistant transcribed all interview tapes and many of the videotapes.

Main Findings

The first main finding was that overall, the expected number of students in the SAGE classrooms in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade met the "rigorous" curriculum goals the teachers established in reading, writing, and mathematics. The teachers set three to five most important goals in each subject, projected the percentage of students they believed would attain each goal, and focused their teaching and assessment on those goals throughout the year. Nearly 60% to 100% of the students met each goal. In most cases, 80% to 98% of students attained the goals.

The second main finding was that, according to interviews with nine students in kindergarten, 10 students in first grade, and nine students in second grade, the children believed they were becoming good readers and writers. In many cases, they also recognized their teachers and families assisted in their progress. The students' views of their achievements in mathematics were not as strong, although they demonstrated some of the skills emphasized by the teachers.

The third main finding was that the 17 parents I interviewed who had children in the SAGE Program viewed the program as beneficial and were pleased with the progress their children made in reading, writing, and mathematics. The majority cited smaller classes, team teaching, individual attention and assistance for students, and special programs, such as the early literacy night and Reading Recovery, provided the additional support and attention their child needed. All parents interviewed provided some assistance at home for their child(ren)'s growth in these areas of the curriculum.

The fourth main finding was that the teachers not only emphasized the rigorous curriculum goals, but also addressed students' physical, social, and emotional needs. Teachers and staff used different strategies to develop classroom communities and provide clothing and food for students in need. The teachers met in teams to develop the rigorous curriculum goals, strategies for teaching them, and methods for assessing students' attainment of the goals. They focused their teaching on the goals, integrated assessment more closely with teaching, increased small group and individual instruction, addressed students' academic needs through special programs, such as the ESL, Reading Resource, and Reading Recovery programs, and used effective strategies for promoting students' growth in reading, writing, and mathematics. For team teachers, they focused on developing their teaching team.

Ava McCall interviews a SAGE student.

SAGE Program