Bridgeport schools’ math, literacy coaches in the budget crosshairs
BRIDGEPORT — Students in Kathy Fuch’s fourth-grade class at Beardsley School are voracious readers, whipping through one book after another on school-supplied iPads.
For some students, however, reading proficiency remains stuck in neutral.
So Fuchs turned to LaShonda Commodore, one of the district’s 10 literacy coaches.
For teachers, literacy coaches as well as math coaches are virtual lifelines — someone there to help, not evaluate.
Commodore came in to model a conference on how to pick “just right” books with a small group of students in the back corner of the classroom.
Fuchs looked on.
The city once had 27 math and 27 reading coaches, one at each elementary school. Now there are 10 of each type
“If you pick books too hard or easy, you won’t increase reading level,” Commodore tells the students, showing them where on the iPad screen to find their numeric reading level.
Pick books you like that fall no more than 50 points below or 100 above your level, she advises.
Fuchs will repeat the conferences with the rest of the class of 24 students.
Commodore, meanwhile, is onto a second-grade class where students are having trouble constructing sentences.
Split between four schools, Commodore works primarily with teachers. Some see her as a go-to specialist who can diagnose reading difficulties and offer solutions. Veteran teachers look to her for fresh approaches. Commodore makes sure the great techniques she observes do not stay a secret.
However, the literacy lifeline might have a target on its back.
Bridgeport may be at the point where it can no longer afford coaches.
Do students who have had coaches show improvement, Dennis Bradley, a school board member asked bluntly at a recent board finance committee meeting. If not, he suggested the district’s dwindling resources be directed elsewhere.
Already the district has cut kindergarten aides, home school coordinators and elementary school guidance counselors. Next year’s tentative cut list includes the coaches, as well as assistant principals, and the school volunteer office staff.
The 20 coaches cost $2 million annually when benefits are included. Supporters say the cost is offset by in-house professional development the coaches provide and their role in keeping teacher turnover rates lower than they might be were teachers left to sink or swim on their own.
Literacy and math coaches are not tutors or aides. They are certified teachers with special training. Using them to support classroom teachers is common place, across the country and in Connecticut. Not only among low performing school districts.
In 2016-17, 82 districts in the state had literacy coaches, according to the state Department of Education. Some 60 districts had math coaches and 61 had both.
Ansonia, Danbury, Fairfield, Shelton, Monroe, Trumbull and Milford all use them.
Milford Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Feser called them a cornerstone of the professional learning philosophy in her district.
In Shelton, Schools Superintendent Chris Clouet likened them to medical specialists.
“A general practitioner MD doesn’t treat heart ailments, a cardiologist does,” Clouet said. “The challenges of becoming highly literate and adept at mathematics requires more support than can be effectively offered by classroom teachers alone.”
Coaches are not a requirement in high-needs districts like Bridgeport, where raising reading and math scores is a constant struggle.
Herminio Planas, Bridgeport’s director of math, said the vast majority of the district’s professional development in math falls to math coaches.
At one time, the district had 27 math and 27 reading coaches, one at each elementary school. Now there are a total of 10 of each type districtwide.
Elena Mayorga, a math coach for 12 years, works with 61 teachers across seven schools, all in grades kindergarten through two. She sees her job as more cheerleader than expert, helping teachers warm up to math along with their students. She knows how to make math fun.
During a grade level meeting at Classical Studies Magnet Academy, Mayorga discussed “funny numbers” with a pair of second grade teachers. Students think it’s a game. The exercise forces students to do the math in their heads by telling them to turn to page “40 plus 13” instead of 53.
Mayorga also helps unravel test results.
With Amanda Finch, a kindergarten teacher, Mayorga points out that though many of her students aren’t where they should be, most are on track to make a year’s growth or more by June.
“It helps to have someone who can break it down,” Finch said, staring down at the sheet of numbers.
“Elena Mayorga was an amazing third grade teacher and helped 25 students succeed when she was a teacher at Multicultural Magnet,” Planas said. She now works with many more teachers weekly, affecting well over 1,000 students.
Planas said the results are evident. On the state’s Smarter Balance Test, district math scores rose in 2017 with the percent of students at or above grade level rising from 9.7 to 13 percent. Bridgeport also did better than other urban districts in meeting growth targets set by the state.
In reading, Melissa Jenkins, Bridgeport’s director of literacy, said while it’s hard to make a direct correlation between the training coaches provide and student outcomes, district phonics scores jumped from last winter to this winter.
Last year, 42 percent of third graders in the district were at or above grade level in phonics compared to 62 percent of this year’s fourth graders — essentially the same students. The same growth was seen between last year’s fourth graders and this year’s fifth graders (30 percent rose to 72 percent) and last year’s fifth grade and this year’s sixth grade (47 to 79 percent).
Beardsley Principal Sharon Pivorotto called the coaches vital to keeping the momentum going.
“It is what helps our teachers and students grow,” Pivorotto said.