Randolph Park Elementary School reading

Arkhel Ware, a fourth grader at Randolph Park Elementary School in Anniston works on his reading skills during class. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

If Randolph Park Elementary School had a few thousand extra dollars to spend, fourth-grader Jayden Brown knows exactly where he’d like it to go.

“They should spend it on supplies for kids who can’t buy their own supplies,” the 9-year-old said. And if any is left over, he said, the school should buy more books – realistic novels of the kind he likes to read.

Randolph Park will soon have some extra spending money, and it will have it precisely because Jayden and his classmates like to read. State school officials on Wednesday announced that Randolph Park was among the top 50 schools in improvement among third graders’ reading scores on the state’s standardized tests in the last school year. All schools on the top-50 list will get a $20,000 grant from the state school system, according to a Wednesday press release.

Principal Teresia Hall said she was surprised by the honor and the money, but not by the students’ test performance.

“We’ve worked hard,” Hall said.

The top 50 list, essentially a “most improved” award, includes a wide range of schools from around the state. Mountain Brook Elementary, in one of the state’s wealthiest cities, made the list along with Randolph Park, where all students are on free or reduced-price lunch, according to state statistics.

Only about 40 percent of Randolph Park’s third graders scored as proficient on the Scantron exam now used by the state, Hall said. But third-grade scores rose by 60 to 70 percent from the beginning to the end of the last school year, the principal said.

Hall said school officials a few years ago realized that students who did will in first and second grades were seeing a slump in third grade. So she found a way to use federal grant money to assign one teacher as a reading interventionist, dedicated to working with third-grade teachers on students’ reading needs.

“We did a lot of close reading,” said Barbara Mack, the interventionist. “We take chunks of a story and talk about them in depth to make sure we really understand what we’re reading.”

Mack said teachers also worked to include reading instruction in other subjects, such as social studies and science.

That approach may sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Alabama Reading Initiative, a program that put reading coaches into schools.That program won accolades from education experts in the 1990s and early 2000s, but has seen its budgets dwindle in more recent years.

According to Hall, Mack was the school’s reading coach under ARI until a few years ago, when funding cuts left Anniston with one coach for all its elementary schools instead of one per school.

State school board member Cynthia McCarty said she’s proud of the school, and glad the school found a way to bring back elements of ARI.

“From what I’ve heard, it was an extremely strong program,” McCarty said.

Hall said the school also relied heavily on test data to improve reading instruction. She said teachers let students see some of their own test results, so they’d know where they need to improve.

Those results come from a statewide exam created by Scantron, the same company that’s synonymous with fill-in-the-bubble sheets for standardized tests. School board members settled on Scantron as a default test a few years ago, after years of experiments with other exams.  Under Scantron, students are tested at the beginning and the end of the year, to see what they’ve picked up over the course of a grade.

Mack said she’d like to see the $20,000 go to bonuses – not for her, but for other third-grade teachers.

“It would be an incentive for everyone,” she said.

Both Mack and Hall say they’d like to see some money go to classroom supplies, and particularly to computers. Unlike some Alabama schools, Randolph Park has yet to provide one computing device for every student.

“With $20,000, we could buy 75 Chromebooks,” Hall said. She said she’s still waiting for word from state officials on any restrictions on how the money can be spent.

The top 50 schools will be honored in a special awards ceremony at the state school board’s Sept. 13 meeting in Montgomery, according to a school board press release.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.