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Cool Schools: Concord West Side uses Extreme Clubs to boost reading skills

ELKHART, Ind. – Staff at Concord West Side Elementary School has developed a unique guided reading program called Extreme Clubs. Since its creation the program has helped to turn the school and test scores around.

“I tell kids when you can read you have choices,” said Jennifer Ross, intervention coordinator at Concord West Side. “I think that’s the most important thing for kids to realize.”

Ross helped develop the program at West Wide 10 years ago.

“When we started this program, our school’s test scores were not great,” said Ross. “We were like way in the bottom, close to actually having to have the state come in and take over.”

“Back then we were looking at maybe 20 to 25 percent were reading on grade level,” said Principal Gerard Donlon.

That’s when Maribel Espinoza was a student at the school. She now is a reading paraprofessional helping students in Extreme Clubs. Although she says she enjoys reading now, that wasn’t always the case.  

“I didn’t like reading in front of people. I hated reading in front of people,” said Espinoza.

That mentality was common among students. And that’s when Ross says they had a wake-up call.

“At that time the show Extreme Home Makeover was a big deal,” said Ross. “So we decided, you know what, we need an extreme makeover of our reading program. And that’s where the name came from; Extreme Clubs was an extreme makeover.”

Extreme Clubs are small groups that Ross organizes by analyzing student data and placing them by reading level.

The school makes those groups a priority. Each Extreme Club meets four days a week for at least 30 minutes.

During that group time, teachers work to get creative and bring engaging ways to learn for students. Activities range from rehearsing plays, to crafts and even growing plants.

“That’s what’s so fun about Extreme Clubs,” said Ross. “Because it’s in a smaller group the kids have some exposure to some different things that they might not get in a full classroom.”

The small group setting has other benefits, including giving the kids more confidence according to Ross.

“Sometimes in a classroom they’re not brave enough to speak up because they’re not confident in their skills in English, but in a smaller group they can be a little more brave,” said Ross.

Ross says about 70 percent of the student body is made up of language learners, which means for those students English is not their first language.

Since implementing Extreme Clubs, the school has seen growth in numbers and in test scores. The school earned a “B” grade last year and is shooting for an “A” grade this year.

“Our growth has just skyrocketed and the kids are making academic strides,” said Donlon.

Donlon says now more than 60 percent of students are reading at grade level.

“I’m blown away by the progress that they make,” said Ross. “It’s amazing to see what they can do with that little extra help.”

The program has helped kids put together more than just sounds. They’re building lasting relationships as well.  

 “Some of our kids that is their strongest connection is with that small group reading person. That’s who they tell their secrets to. That’s who they share their exciting news. They know that’s the person they can talk to,” said Ross.

And those at Concord West Side say “relationships” is one of the most important words of all.

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