BSRI’s Program is Highlighted in the Gloucester Times

Learning to love reading and writing - Bay State reading initiative at Plum Cove sees marked results

By Ray Lamont, Staff Writer for Gloucester Times

At one table, Plum Cove Elementary School fourth-grader Jessica Cote was working with classmates Noah Vicari and Brendan Anderton, reading online articles to build an argument in favor of recycling.

“It protects the environment,” said Jessica. “And it reduces energy,” Noah added.

A few feet away, fellow fourth-graders Anna Hafey and Kelsey Frontiero were working off the same articles on Wednesday, preparing to argue the opposite view when the pupils in teacher Cathy Hamilton’s class get together for a debate.

“(Recycling) sometimes spreads pollution into our drinking water, when plastics are involved,” said Anna, with Kelsey nodding her agreement.

This scene is not from some contemporary science or public speaking program. It’s one piece of the nonprofit Bay State Reading Institute’s initiative that’s been used at Plum Cove since 2012 and is now in place throughout Gloucester’s five elementary schools.

Mike Springer/Staff photo (at left) Ben Scherz, Director of Partnerships for the Bay State Reading Institute, talks with fourth-grader Kayden Pool during reading class Wednesday at Plum Cove Elementary School in Gloucester

Mike Springer/Staff photo (at left) Ben Scherz, Director of Partnerships for the Bay State Reading Institute, talks with fourth-grader Kayden Pool during reading class Wednesday at Plum Cove Elementary School in Gloucester

Gloucester is one of 12 school districts across the state now using BSRI in all of its schools, and is one of just two — the other is Beverly — on the North Shore. The Amesbury-based program partners with more than 60 schools and works with more than 22,000 students and 1,700 teachers, explained BSRI partnership director Ben Scherz of Newburyport during the visit to Plum Cove.

The program, funded jointly through a state grant and by the individual school districts, provides teachers with assistance designed to better engage students in reading. It also provides professional development programs for those teachers, with Plum Cove’s Hamilton and third-grade teacher Shannon Comeau among those attending BSRI’s 10-day summer academy last year.

Above all, the program works, says Plum Cove Principal Tammy Morgan, now in her eighth year at the school.

Better test scores

Morgan said the BSRI innovations played a role in raising the school’s English Language Arts standardized test scores, lifting the school from Level 2 to Level 1 status with the state Department of Early and Secondary Education. Plum Cove last year also earned a designation from DESE, based on improved testing scores, as one of just 44 commended schools across the state.

“It’s very active — it’s not quiet,” Morgan said of the program, which, beyond debating reading story content, finds schoolchildren openly teaching one another within small groups and includes a modernized phonics component. Pupils in first-grade teacher Tina Bowling’s class Wednesday shouted out the sounds of letters and phrases.

“We’re very proud,” Morgan said. “Our teachers are always willing to try something new, and they have welcomed this since it started. I credit our Level 1 (status) to our teachers and our students, and we’ve grown as a school through partnering with BSRI — they’re always there to help and to be a safety net for us.”

Alex Osburn, Plum Cove’s reading coach who works for the school district and is at the center of the BSRI initiative, said the premise is simple: “It’s all about getting and keeping the kids engaged in reading and in the material.”

Osburn, on Wednesday, visited classes along with Scherz and BSRI’s principal reading instructor Nancy Connelly. Osburn noted the reading block classes include regular changes, with pupils — after about 20 minutes — bouncing from the “debate table” to one dedicated to “reciprocal learning,” in which the schoolchildren share reading and instruct each other.

Fringe benefits

The program, which builds off the coordinated Reading Street curriculum used throughout Gloucester’s schools, also delivers some relatively subtle fringe benefits. In sharing their reading material and ideas about one another’s writing and reading, Osburn pointed out, children not-so-quietly gain another appreciation.

“They’re also getting the message that the teachers don’t always have all the answers,” Osburn said. “Sometimes they can see, they can learn from one another; there’s a lot of critical thinking going on as well.”

In another corner of Hamilton’s class, pupils were reading from a book focusing on military history, and their teacher was helping them to comprehend the material. But what would often be viewed as simply appropriate history class material was having another effect — it was leading the kids to read, and Scherz emphasized that’s a premise of the entire program.

“I’m not sure there’s anything subtle about it,” he said with a smile. “One of the measures of BSRI is to prepare students for a life of reading — and showing why they want to read.”

Reading, writing

The desire to read — and to learn to write effectively — was also on display Wednesday in teacher Shannon Comeau’s third-grade class, where the children were crafting their own stories with an eye toward “entertaining beginnings.”

That initiative encourages the children to use action, dialogue, exclamation, sounds, questions or thoughts to kick off their stories, and to be mindful of which work best. On Wednesday, for example, it spurred third-grader Talia Higgins to craft an opening that read: “Wow?! I exclaimed as I was told I was going to swim with Winter the dolphin.”

“There!” Comeau exclaimed on her own. “That’s more interesting than, ‘Hi, my name is…’ or ‘This is what I’m going to tell you,’ right?”  The children nodded in agreement.

Osburn said the interdisciplinary aspect of the BSRI program is one of its primary strengths.
“Strong reading and writing coordination is very key,” she emphasized as Comeau’s s pupils took their own stories, then looked for similar openings in reading books, and read their works aloud. “It pulls it all together.”

Scherz noted that Plum Cove is not alone as a BSRI success story. In this past year’s testing, another partner school district also rose from Level 2 to Level 1 and two others rose from Level 3 to Level 2.

“I’ve seen the difference here (at Plum Cove),” Morgan said. “It’s been great, and our teachers have done a great job in working with it. It’s been great to see.”

Staff Writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at