Two years after starting the Success For All (SFA) program, teachers at the Voyageur Memorial School in Mistissini have seen their students’ reading skill improve by leaps and bounds.

In September 2009, Voyageur Memorial started the SFA, a heavily researched literacy program formulated at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. They sent groups of their teachers down to the U.S. for training sessions to learn how to teach the program, which is has a rigid structure meant to make testing success from both students and teachers easier. Voyageur Memorial interim principal Bjorn Olsen says being part of the program has also opened up teachers to unprecedented new resources.

“We now have access to thousands of dollars of material which is all categorized and teachers can pick up a teaching package for a number of weeks of work,” he said.

Students are grouped according to their reading level; the preliminary group is called “Roots”, and stresses learning the basics of letter sounds and pronunciation for kids just learning English, while the second level, called “Wings”, focusses on word meanings and the significance of synonyms. Olsen says results from both groups are clear.

“I’ve heard parents say that when they go to Montreal, their kids see the McDonald’s M and start making the mmm sound,” he said, chuckling. “And the data is encouraging: we’re finding the number of Roots groups is diminishing and the number of Wings groups is increasing, which means we’re having success.”

When Voyageur began the program, there was only one student at the expected reading level for their grade. As of today, 53 students have reached or exceeded this level. The school’s goal for the program is to have 40% of their students at or above their grade’s reading level by the end of June. For the school of 290, this entails having 116 strong readers – meaning they are almost halfway to their goal in just over two years.

The SFA program stresses the importance of data, and to keep track of progress it tests students every eight weeks. Those students who have progressed are moved into a more advanced group, while those who are still struggling with certain concepts may repeat the last level. Olsen says this kind of accountability is an important development.

“Attendance is a problem for some kids, and if they missed a lot of class in Grade 1, they might not have learned some of the basic sounds,” he explained. “There can be gaps in their education [because of this], so quite a few students never picked up the basics.”

Regular testing means that students who are lacking specific knowledge are taught it, instead of being allowed to fall through the cracks and miss out on basic knowledge. And the program’s structure means children are getting almost two hours of dedicated literacy time every day: 90 minutes in school, much of which is done in cooperative, interactive group work, and then 20 minutes of reading at home.

Voyageur Memorial is the first Cree school to implement the SFA program, and only the third in Quebec to do so. Hampstead Elementary School and Parkdale Elementary School, in St. Laurent, both carry the program; Hampstead implemented it in 1996 through a partnership with Concordia University researchers.

The program is overseen by an American non-profit organization, and schools like Voyageur Memorial are given regular updates in training. Consultants visit several times a year to give workshops to groups of teachers, and each group has strategies taught to them depending on which students they are teaching. These include games that encourage students to help each other learn, as well as reward strategies like group cheers that teachers can lead for when classes are succeeding. Olsen said it all adds up to a successful program, which they expanded this year to include a high-school component called “Edge”.

The best assessment of the program’s success comes from its benefactors. When the Nation visited Voyageur Memorial, our photographer asked a young girl in Grade 1 if he could take her picture. Her response? “Sorry, no. I’m too busy reading.”