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Billings elementary school students improve reading skills with unique teaching method

Since 2017, reading scores have improved by 44% at McKinley Elementary School
Using the book vending machine
Posted at 3:13 PM, Oct 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-13 17:13:07-04

BILLINGS — In September, the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) released statewide test scores that shocked many. For third through eighth grade, less than half of students were at their grade level for reading.

But that’s not the case at McKinley Elementary School in Billings, where scores continue to improve.

“I think we’ve really shifted. The shift has been from teaching to learning. So our focus is more on whether or not the students have learned the concept we are teaching, not just did we teach it," said Nicole Trahan, the principal of McKinley, on Friday. "We are really laser-focused on data. So any proficiency scale or critical concept we teach, we’re always reviewing student data, trying to find those kiddos that are meeting the standard and how can we enrich them, and those students that aren’t meeting the standard and how do we intervene."

Nicole Trahan
Nicole Trahan

According to OPI, reading scores are down statewide, with less than half of students meeting grade-level reading standards.

“Our focus is on the growth for us. We look at where we’re at in comparison with the district and state, and we’re pleased that we’re outperforming district and state measures," Trahan said. "But our focus is always on us and whether or not we’re growing students at the level that we need to, to make them successful for the next grade."

Trahan said that since 2017, reading scores at the school have improved by 44%.

“It’s that laser focus on learning. It’s that laser focus on our critical concepts and making sure that whatever grade level expectations we have, whatever grade level standards we have set, that every kid, no matter what class they’re in, meets those," Trahan said.

McKinley Elementary School
McKinley Elementary School

The school used federal funding to hire interventionists to assist students. Those extra hands coupled with a data-driven approach and 30 minutes of designated planning time each Wednesday have made a large impact.

"We’ve used our title funding to hire interventionists, who are so important because when we have 25 kids in a classroom it’s very difficult for that teacher or their partner to come together and meet the needs of all kids," Trahan said. "And so what we’ve done with our title funding is really hire those interventionists that can help us to be able to work with smaller groups throughout the time. It really is that collaborative piece. But the professional learning community time that we have on Wednesday afternoons is so important. It’s just that time that we have to look at data and identify those kiddos that need that extra support."

Kaitlin Elliott, an interventionist at the school, said her work with the students allows for more targeted instruction.

"I work with reading intervention, those kids that are on the bubble that just need a little extra small group targeted instruction. They get their whole group instruction with their whole class, and then they come in and we work on exactly what they’re needing,” Elliott said. “I also think that our culture of collaboration is super important. The kids are not just that teacher's kids, they’re everyone’s kids. And so we’re all committed to working together to meet their needs and sharing their expertise with each other."

Kaitlin Elliott
Kaitlin Elliott

One incentive now offered at the school: tokens for being safe, respectful, and responsible that can be used in a new book vending machine.

“I think that it’s just such a different way to reward kids," Elliott said. "It’s tactile, meaningful, and then also helps them find a love and a joy of reading."

Book vending machine at McKinley
Book vending machine at McKinley

The school's counselor, Caitlin Hraban, said she is grateful for the students and families who made the project possible.

"Our third, fourth, and fifth graders were the driving force behind getting this into the building. So they raised half of the money...and then the Billings Clinic, which is our community partner, they donated. And I also wrote a grant through the Dennis and Phyliss Washington Foundation. So we were able to fully fund it," Hraban said on Friday. “It just was kind of a really intriguing thing of, how can we motivate students with something that’s literacy-based, instead of like, ‘Here’s candy!’"

Caitlin Hraban
Caitlin Hraban

Hraban wanted to thank those who helped make the book vending machine possible.

“I think I would just like to add a huge 'thank you' because it was due in part to our kids and our community that we were able to fund this," Hraban said. "As a building, we would not have been able to do this alone. So our kids and our families really worked hard to help us fund this. So just a big thank you to them."

It’s just one step toward the school’s long-term goal.

“I think our ultimate goal, and we talk about this, is to be the first National Blue Ribbon School in Billings," Trahan said. "I think we’re well on our way, we just have to continue the growth that we’ve seen."

Trahan believes that as long as the kids keep up the good work, that goal will be reached in no time.

"We have great kids and great families, and no matter how hard we push our kiddos, they meet our expectations. And so that’s why we can do what we do," Trahan said. "Our kids are amazing kids, and they face the challenges that we set for them every single day. They know what they’re working for, and they consistently amaze us with how much progress they make."