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Learning the ABCs with Snack Pack, Shake 'n Bake and Slim Jim

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 21, 2009 - Terrance Wynn used to think of Slim Jim beef jerky and Snack Pack pudding as treats for the taste buds. But one morning, during his 90-minute reading class at KIPP Inspire middle school, Terrance discovered that food labels offered shortcuts to mastering reading and spelling. He was among about 27 fifth graders who listened and reacted with a mixture of fascination and confusion when the rhyming sounds of several foods were turned into a teachable moment at the new charter public school on the south side of St. Louis.

The school, which has 85 children, will add a grade each year to serve students through eighth grade and reach an enrollment of 340 students.

Anyone wondering what's different about KIPP schools, how they inspire ordinary kids to become among the best and the brightest, could find part of the answer in Terrance's class. There, his teacher, Molly Joyce, uses the brand names of products found on the shelves of most supermarkets to help students improve their reading and spelling.

Thirty minutes of the class is devoted to reading. Joyce doesn't care much for probing children about facts in the story: the character's name or color of his shirt. Instead, she wants to know how the students felt about the story -- what part made them happy, what part made them sad, what words denoted happiness or sadness. As the students do their reports, they place post-it notes next to passages showing their reactions. A smiling face on a post-it note would show the teacher that the passage made the child feel good.

Joyce says this method is no different from college students using markers to underline passages in books. The post-it method lifts the KIPP students from passivity; it engages them, causing them to think about what they've read and then absorb it.

Joyce, 24, found her way into this classroom through Teach for America. She does not seem discouraged that many of her students lag several grades behind fifth-grade level. Her mission is to help youngsters like Terrance climb the ladder to the fifth grade and beyond.

Such progress might not occur this school term, but it will happen in time, if the experiences of these youngsters follows the KIPP pattern nationwide. Students who are two or three grade levels behind when they enter a KIPP school end up outperforming their peers by the time they complete eighth grade. Put another way, these local KIPP fifth-graders who hardly seem like prospects for elite high schools will probably end up with plenty of offers when they finish KIPP four years from now.

To Dream The Possible Dream

That, anyway, is the dream. Right now Joyce and other teachers have to address the reality of helping these youngsters catch up. KIPP officials says their work needs to be put into perspective. Suppose a child enters fifth grade reading at the kindergarten level. If that child's performance zips to the third-grade reading level in a school term, that would represent remarkable growth in a short time and would hold the promise that the youngster could reach grade level before graduating from KIPP Aspire.

Not that all of them are behind. Like children in St Louis schools in general, some at KIPP already are performing above grade level. Terrance is among the youngsters with an "individualized education program" because of a learning disability. At KIPP Inspire, an estimated 30 percent of children have such disabilities, ranging from attention deficit disorder to dyslexia.

Such children at KIPP Inspire are helped by special education teacher Katrina Crittle. She accompanies the learning-disabled youngsters to each of their classes, helping to supplement work done by regular fifth-grade teachers.

On this morning, many of the children in Terrance's class are reading silently; the room is quiet but for the hum of a window air conditioner. Joyce, a petite woman, kneels at Terrance's desk to help on the brand-name lesson the class had just completed.

She points a ballpoint pin, decorated at the top with a bright red flower, toward various words on a sheet of paper. At the top of the page are key words that make underlined sounds ranging from "ack" to "ake" to "im" -- as in Snack Pack, to Shake 'n Bake, to Slim Jim. Words that make similar sounds are listed below these, requiring Terrance to figure out the sounds.

Terrance isn't quite there yet. But he's beginning to discover how these familiar names can come in handy when he's trying to spell or read words as unfamiliar to him as caviar. It's a discovery that makes his eyes brighten. It's as if his instructor had shared a secret. She'd given him one key to unlocking the mystery of spelling and pronouncing hundreds of words simply by training him to pay closer attention to the word patterns and sounds of three items -- a snack called Slim Jim, a pudding treat known as Snack Pack and a breading called Shake 'n Bake.

In time, Joyce hopes this knowledge will make it easier for Terrance to read and spell more complex words. For now, however, it's enough that they have learned something taken for granted by plenty of other school children.


Challenging, Yes - but in a good way


Joyce's morning is a scene that many teachers in regular schools probably wouldn't envy -- about 27 kids, perhaps a third of them needing special help. For many educators, this is an overcrowded classroom. For KIPP, it's a case where a teacher needs to be creative.

"It's challenging," Joyce concedes. "But it's challenging in a good way. It's exciting because I'm using a program (Reader's Workshop) that works. Every kid in my reading class is reading at his or her own level. It's not 27 kids reading out of the same book where you end up with 20 of them not having a clue about what's going on."

KIPP's method is to start every child with lessons that match his or her abilities rather than their grade levels and help them work upward from that point.

"Coming in, we don't hold our first-, second- and third-grade readers to fifth-grade expections," Joyce says. "It just doesn't make sense because they can't access text that they can't understand."

The idea, she says, is to help students learn by recognizing "letter patterns -- I know snack and pack have the same sound, for example, so they must be spelled the same way -- and use the pattern to identify and spell new words."

Granted, there's nothing revolutionary or magical about KIPP's approach to reading, just basic work. A similar phonics-based approach at a KIPP school in the District of Columbia school system improved students' reading dramatically; their scores eventually rose from the 20th percentile to the 80th percentile in relation to their peers nationwide, Joyce says.

"The scores skyrocketed just by their work in memorizing the letter patterns and being able to use them when they read everyday," Joyce says. "This program really targets what they need."

An Orderly School

KIPP Inspire holds classes in the now-closed St. Francis de Sales High School in the Fox Park neighborhood. Classes at KIPP are generally quiet, as are periods when students gather in the hallway, normally a boisterous time at many schools, to move to the next class. The youngsters line up neatly and pay attention to the instructors standing at doors to greet them for their next class.

Joyce and school leader Jeremy Esposito say the orderly and quiet atmosphere is fundamental to the way KIPP schools operate.

"It's a place where there are incredibly high expectations for behavior," Joyce says. "We're not yelling at kids left and right. The students know they are not to talk even if they are sitting at a table next to one another. They're really focused and we're not dealing with disturbances."

The youngsters know, she says, that "if you act up, everyone's going to look at you kind of crazy. That's the culture we've made here, that we're here to learn, are interested in our reading and we're excited about it."

The Pay Is Good

Expectations are reinforced through a make-believe paycheck system. The children get a check for as much as $100 weekly in play money but with real purchasing power. The check is the reward for good behavior, good study habits and high test scores. Students take the check home, have a parent sign it, then return it to school where the money accumulates.

If the check is less than $100 each week, the student presumably has lots of explaining to do at home. Kids who earn at least $80 a week are allowed to take part in a fun activity each Friday. Last week's activity was kickball. Children who fail to earn an average of $80 a week for the term won't be allowed to go on the class trip to the nation's capital in the spring.

"This makes a lot of sense," Joyce says. "Here are the expectations: If you don't follow them, you lose dollars each week. This is an easy concept that they can understand: I'm doing what's right, so I get to participate in a fun activity on Friday and in the end, I'll get to go to D.C."

All this is new to 10-year-old Terrance. He's generally as quiet outside the classroom as he is during lessons. He wears a white T-shirt with the word KIPP on the front. That says something to the rest of the kids. It denotes that he has done everything right for the week. Kids who don't are denied the privilege of wearing a shirt with the word KIPP on it.

"I like this place," he finally says when asked how things are going. "I like it because I'm learning something."

Like what? He doesn't mention the lessons in phonics.

"Like what?" he repeats the question the way many kids do. "Well, I know now that I want to go to college. I also know the name of a college."

He forces a slight smile, remembering the time last July, before school started, when a reporter asked him if knew the names of any colleges he'd like to attend. He couldn't think of one, not even Washington University, the sponsor of KIPP Inspire, the first top-ranked private university nationwide to put its prestige and resources behind a charter school.

"Dayton," he finally says. "The University of Dayton."

The logo for Dayton, Joyce's alma mater, is on the wall in her classroom. This is a big deal, this KIPP fixation with kids and colleges. Classrooms and hallways in KIPP schools across the country are decorated with college banners and mascots. The idea is to drill in each child's mind the importance of studying hard to get into a good college.

If there's one ingredient -- besides good leadership and parental support -- that makes a difference in KIPP schools, it's committed teachers like Joyce.

Joyce refuses to be judgmental about what happened to some of the kids before they arrived at KIPP, refusing to talk about how they'd been let down by other schools, other teachers. She prefers to talk about how KIPP is helping these youngsters catch up.

"Conventional approaches probably aren't going to help Terrance, and it's probably not going to work for a number of our students. You have to be sort of unconventional to help them succeed."

And she puts a heavy responsibility on herself, noting that kids are in the building for about nine hours each weekday and teachers even longer. Students also have access to teachers up until about 9 p.m. through cell phones.

"If I can't make a difference in that amount of time...," her voice trails off as if her point it obvious.

In this early part of school, she has had a few bright moments, too. Like one morning this week when Terrance showed up in class and went straight to the board, demonstrating his mastery of some spelling and speaking some words based on what he had learned about word sounds.

"You can tell that his motivation is there, his drive is there," Joyce said. "We're already making progress. Even if it's one word at a time."