School of the Week: Harms Elementary

…Lying on tummies, sharing big picture books in small groups on a colorful rug in the kindergarten classroom.

…Whispering quietly, hovering over an assigned book with a tutor at a table in the hallway on the second floor.

…Sitting with a friend, sharing a chapter book under the blue sky during recess.

Everywhere you turn at Harms Elementary, children are reading, reading, reading.

“Reading is the gateway to all other academic subjects,” said Mauro Cruz, principal of the Southwest Detroit School, which is recognized by Excellent Schools Detroit as one of the top elementary schools in the City.

Indeed, Harms students are on a path to read 30,000 books, collectively, by year’s end – once again – for the school’s annual reading contest.

Because reading is so revered at Harms, the students in grades 3-5 who meet their reading goals are treated like celebrities at the end of the year for an event in which a red carpet is rolled out in front of the school and students are rewarded with a ride in a stretch limousine to a downtown restaurant.

“Over the years, this event has become a tradition at Harms. Families come to take pictures and applaud as students board the limousines,” said Assistant Principal Amalia Lozano Chedraue.

Having all children read at high levels is no small feat for Harms, where many of the students are native Spanish speakers.

“The one thing our English Language Learners need is to learn to read while enhancing their academic and written language and vocabulary. We will do anything we can to have them read,” said Lozano Chedraue, who has even pledged to dye her hair pink if the school meets its reading goal. “The more they read, the more they have the opportunity to acquire language.”

To accommodate the many varied language abilities, Harms uses an intensive reading program called Success For All, a whole-school model.

“At the core of our reading program is cooperative learning, where students develop the skills to work together, engage in discussions, find solutions, elaborate and report,” said Cruz.

Students of all grades travel to different classrooms for an additional 90 minutes a day where they are grouped based on their reading levels and abilities. During that time, they read books of their choosing for at least 20 to 30 minutes, in addition to time spent on reading during their regular English Language Arts classes.

The school also uses the technology-rich Accelerated Reader Program which has contributed significantly to an increase students’ academic achievement over the years, Cruz said.

Students read a book of their choice and reading level, take an online reading quiz that tests for comprehension, and then get immediate feedback. The program tracks everything about their reading ability, giving students and teachers an arsenal of data and information to improve reading skills.

Teacher Jessica Piechocki places a heavy emphasis on English Language Acquisition in her bilingual second grade classroom.

“We focus on the academic vocabulary that is used in their everyday life and in their studies and will ultimately be used on their standardized tests,” Piechocki said.

Improving reading fundamentals is built into lessons across all subjects, like math, science and social studies, reiterating Cruz’ philosophy that reading is the gateway to excellence in other subjects.

But the lessons also have to be fun and engaging, which is why Harms teachers use tons of hands-on learning techniques.

During a recent science lesson in Piechocki’s class, she masterfully incorporated hands-on activities with reading and language acquisition into a lesson on plant characteristics.

To students, the lesson may have merely seemed like a fun opportunity to get messy while planting lima beans. But the lesson was jam-packed with layers of learning, not only in science, but also in reading acquisition, in which Piechocki encouraged students to write the “kid-friendly” scientific words on note cards, to reinforce English reading and comprehension and scientific concepts.

Creating an enjoyable learning atmosphere, where students love to learn, is central to Harms’ teaching philosophy.

“I like this school because it’s fun,” said 5th grader Brianna Sheridan. “We have a lot interesting books, which is great because I love to read.”

Brianna, who is currently reading The Chronicles of Narnia because she “loves adventures,” has lost track of the large number of books she’s read over the course of the year.

“I know it’s a lot,” she said. “More than 100.”

While Reading/Language Arts clearly is at the core of Harms’ academic program, “we still try not to be a one-subject school,” Cruz said.

After-school enrichment activities include a new Music program, Drama, Folkloric Dance, ROTC drill steps, computer classes, Chess and Academic Games, through which students traveled to Lansing and brought back second and third place trophies. Soccer is anticipated for the fall.

As part of “A World In Motion,” a science program, students work on hands-on projects, including lessons on physics, gravity and inertia, presented by the members of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). “We need our students to engage in all subjects to prepare them for lifelong learning,” Cruz said.

Something you didn’t know about Harms:

Harms Elementary, which is about to have its 100th birthday in 2015, is one of Detroit Public Schools’ oldest, historic schools.

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