Williston students turn to Stern Center for extra help (11/13/08)

Nov. 13, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The Williston School District and the Stern Center for Language and Learning began teaming up this month to close the achievement gap that exists between certain groups of students and their peers.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
The Stern Center for Language and Learning, located on Allen Brook Lane, has seen an influx of clients as certain Williston students received money for extra tutoring.

In the subjects of math and reading, Stern Center tutors are now bolstering the work of teachers to make sure all students receive a high level of education, said Sally Conant, program director for the center.

“Williston is really working so hard to meet the needs of their students,” Conant said. “It’s nice to be able to supplement a program they’re already getting 90 minutes a day.”

The school district has been required by the Vermont Department of Education to provide supplemental services to economically disadvantaged students who failed the New England Common Assessment Program exams, commonly referred to as NECAP tests. Economically disadvantaged students are those who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Twenty-five students were registered by their parents for the services by the Nov. 1 deadline, said District Principal Walter Nardelli. Families had a choice of where to enroll their children, based on a list approved by the Department of Education. School districts did not have a say in which provider a family could choose.

All Williston students chose the supplemental services from the Stern Center, Nardelli said.

Williston, along with 22 other Vermont schools, did not meet the required improvements on the NECAP tests for Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, over the past three years in the areas of low income or special education students. Thus, the district had to provide the extra services.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to track student improvement each year to ensure they make AYP. Vermont measures progress through the NECAP tests, which are given to students in grades three through eight. The exams test students in math and reading, as well as writing in grades five and eight. This year’s NECAP tests took place in October.

Each qualifying student gets upwards of $1,900 to spend on the supplemental services. The money comes from the district’s federal Title 1 funds for low income students. Families can choose how often their children receive tutoring, from a couple times a week to a couple times a month. The Stern Center charges $80 an hour for tutoring. Once the funding runs out for the student, families can opt to pay out of their own pocket for continued services.

Ed Wilkens, development director for the Stern Center, said the supplemental services requirement has brought an “influx” of new students to the center.

“That has certainly increased any given number of students who need the help,” Wilkens said.

And while it may look like schools are being punished for not achieving AYP, the supplemental services are a great benefit to families.

“Families necessarily wouldn’t have had the resources needed to help their child before coming here,” Wilkens said.

Founded in 1983 by Dr. Blanche Podhajski, the nonprofit Stern Center helps students receive one-on-one and small group help in literacy and other academic subjects. Headquartered in Williston, the center also has a location in White River Junction and aids students from across the state.

Conant said there are many reasons that some Williston students lag behind their peers in terms of learning literacy and math. Some students may have missed out on certain “building blocks” of early learning, such as being read to at a young age or learning the basics of reading comprehension. Also, new students coming into Williston sometimes have a hard time adjusting to new teaching styles and seek the added help, she said.

Conant said students in kindergarten through third grade need 120 minutes a day in literacy and math instruction. If students begin falling behind in learning time, it makes it much harder to make up the achievement gap as it grows wider in later grades, she added.

“Most of the students need more time, and there’s never enough time,” Conant said.

In helping students with literacy, tutors at the Stern Center regularly read aloud and help them understand basic phonics. Making the connections between reading and comprehension is also an important aspect of the service. Conant finds math to be a “double challenge” because so much of it is based on comprehension, and therefore, literacy.

Conant is optimistic for Williston students who are enrolled with the supplemental services and said there is “no question” the district will be able to close the achievement gap. She said with the combination of Williston’s hands-on approach and the Stern Center’s supplemental service, families will start seeing positive results.

“Williston has been very proactive,” Conant said. “They care so much for their students.”