• by José L. Rodríguez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2006 • 

Bad experiences often lead to low expectations. For example, at the beginning of IDRA’s Reading Early for Academic Development (READ) project, some teachers were not enthused: “I was not sure what to expect from project READ when first introduced to it. From past experiences, I figured it was going to be a couple of people coming in to look at my room and me, tell me everything they saw wrong, tell me what to change and leave me to figure out the rest on my own.”

But the READ professional development model is much more than looking at what is not working in classrooms. It is about transforming the teaching environment and working side-by-side with teachers to see why certain elements are not in place or why they are not working and how to make them work for both the teacher and the student.

What does a “classroom of excellence” look like? What does it sound like? This article describes how IDRA is working with 13 Head Start classrooms at four Parent Child, Inc., centers to transform them into classrooms of excellence.

Training Based on Needs

Through IDRA’s Early Reading First project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, IDRA has created these classrooms of excellence. In keeping with IDRA’s mission of “creating schools that work for all children,” the professional development model used in READ was carefully crafted to include coaching, mentoring, reflecting and applying. IDRA’s professional development causes participants to take a new look at persistent problems and equips them to take action that produces positive outcomes for all children.

Because of rigorous professional development and the implementation of a strong scientifically-researched reading curriculum, the READ students’ standardized mean score on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III has moved from 79 to 92, which represents one standard deviation toward the national mean.

The purpose of the Early Reading First program is to prepare young children to enter kindergarten with the necessary language, cognitive and early reading skills for reading success. When READ entered the four PCI centers, the first step of the professional development model was to evaluate the environment and the teaching practices at each of the centers. IDRA used the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation (ELLCO) toolkit to specifically address the role of environmental factors in early literacy and language development. The ELLCO consists of a three-part toolkit that is designed to help administrators, principals, supervisors and program directors gather crucial data needed to strengthen classroom quality and build better literacy programs, both by improving teacher development and comparing their practices with other teachers (Smith and Dickinson, 2002). The children also were assessed using the Get it, Got it, Go!, the Pre-Pals (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening) and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III (PPVT-III) as well as the Test de Vocabulario en Imágenes Peabody (the TVIP is the Spanish version of the PPVT-III). Teachers were interviewed and responded to a professional development survey that described their own professional growth and the level of competency knowledge they would like to achieve by the end of the project.

The Literacy Environment Checklist indicated that there was a 50 percent gap between the observations and what the tool considers exemplary. The largest discrepancies occurred in the “writing about the room” and the “book use” sections of the toolkit. The least discrepancy occurred in the actual existence of materials. The implication was that more needed to be done in the use of the existing resources for the improvement of literacy skills (reading and writing).


The ELLCO data collected and analyzed informed the professional development plan for the teachers. Immediate professional development began on the five components of early literacy: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. The HeadsUp! Reading accentuated the professional development sessions. HeadsUp! Reading is an early literacy course for educators of young children, focused on strengthening crucial early childhood literacy skills.

HeadsUp! Reading delivers high quality, research-based education via satellite television directly to early childhood programs across the United States taught by a diverse faculty of experts in early childhood and literacy (National Head Start Association, 2005). A report from the U.S. Department of Education entitled Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers finds that few beginning teachers nationwide are receiving adequate mentoring (Lewis, et al., 1999).


Throughout the project period, a mentor observed the teachers and modeled lessons for them. She spent half a day with the teachers and offered suggestions. The role of the mentor is a vital component for our model. Summers, as cited by Boreen, et al. (2000), states research indicates that mentoring new teachers can increase their students’ motivation and critical thinking skills. Our mentor is a retired teacher with a wealth of information for the teachers and students.

The mentor used the ELLCO data to transform the environment into one that nurtured the students’ learning. Once the environment changed so did the way the teachers taught. One READ teacher stated: “At the start of this project, I didn’t know what to expect. Going through months of professional development sessions, things started to make sense. I was acquiring information and taking it back to my school. As I used the knowledge I was gaining I started to see change in the children. Children were getting excited about reading. I had one parent who said, ‘I didn’t know my child could read.’ After that, she [the parent] told me that she made time to help her child read. I was very excited to hear that.”

IDRA’s professional development model not only gives the teachers the proper tools to use, but also assists teachers in using those tools. And now we are seeing the results through teacher transformation and student success.

Planning for Instruction

Another important piece of the model is planning for instruction. On the first Saturday of every month, the teachers meet at the PCI resource room to create the literacy centers needed for the month. These meetings have evolved into a learning community where teachers share ideas and discuss the latest ideas in professional development.

Parent Involvement

Parents-as-partners is another important component of our professional development model. Parents are seen and valued as the child’s first teacher and received professional development on setting up “centers of learning” in their homes. Parents were informed on what the students were learning and how they could support them at home. Family field trips to the San Antonio Children’s Museum and to the San Antonio Public Library have enabled families to spend quality time with their children in different settings. At the library, the children and their parents acquired library cards and were encouraged to visit the library frequently. Parents now bring books to share with the teachers and students. Before each of the field trips, our READ family liaison prepared a lesson for the children and for the parents. Parents and their children received information about the field trip beforehand and were given an agenda of things to look for during the field trip. Time was provided after the field trip for the parents and their children to discuss their excursion and complete the given assignment.

Making Classrooms of Excellence a Reality

Upon entering a classroom of excellence, one sees the children working in small groups in different areas. The teacher is at the teaching table working on phonological awareness activities or introducing students to guided reading. The assistant teacher is working with another small group introducing the students to different writing strokes through artwork. Two other small groups are in the library area reading books, in the dramatic area engaged in dramatic play or in other areas of learning available to them. Before breaking up into small groups, the teachers have shared a book with the children and have established the climate for the day. All these activities are done in an exciting, fun way that the children are enjoying.

A teacher commented: “I would teach my children some stuff like basic alphabet, colors and numbers, but now I’m teaching literacy and mathematics. Best of all I’m accomplishing all of these things without stressing the children or myself. Project READ has not only improved my teaching but that of my teacher assistant as well, and we make a fabulous team.”

Before the READ project, teachers used whole-group instruction, and then the children chose the area they wanted to go to. Most of the children chose to go to the art center, block area and the house area. While at these areas, the children often played by themselves, and very little interaction occurred between teacher and student. Now the teachers decide which areas to open during the morning, and students follow rotations. Within 90 minutes, all children have gone through each of the centers. This enables the teacher to work with each one of the children and to monitor their progress to prepare young children to enter kindergarten with the necessary language, cognitive and early reading skills for reading success.

Another teacher stated: “As a parent first and a teacher, I would have liked to have my own child to experience Project READ first-hand. As a Project READ teacher-in-training and a student who is seeking a teaching certificate, I can say that this training is the kind of training that every teacher should receive in college.”

IDRA’s READ professional development model is looking at what is and what is not working in the classrooms, and transforming the teaching environment into one that is conducive to learning. Working side-by-side with teachers and guiding them has been one of the most important elements of our professional development model.


Boreen, J., and M.K. Johnson, D. Niday, J. Potts. Mentoring Beginning Teachers (Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2000).

Lewis, L., and B. Parsad, N. Carey, N. Bartfai, E. Farris, B. Smerdon. (1999-01-00). Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers. Statistical Analysis Report (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, January 1999).

National Head Start Association. HeadsUp! Reading (Alexandria, Va.: National Head Start Association, 2005).

Smith, M.W., and D.K. Dickinson. User’s Guide to the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation Toolkit (Baltimore, Md.: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2002).

José L. Rodríguez, is director of the READ project in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]