‘Unlocking the Gate’ to ELA Achievement in Spokane

by Guest Blogger
June 10th, 2014

By Heather Awbery

Heather Awbery is the principal of Balboa Elementary School in Spokane, Wash. This post originally appeared on Amplify Viewpoints.


She was always a quiet student, and for a long time we questioned her ability to comprehend what we were teaching her in class. She seemed to be really struggling, and in first grade she qualified for Special Education Services. As she entered second grade in September, she continued to perform behind her same-age peers in English Language Arts and other subjects.

September was also the time we began piloting Core Knowledge Language Arts in our kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. It took a little while for our teachers to feel comfortable and confident using it, but they quickly got the hang of it, and by October, they were coming in and showing me some of the earliest assessments, as opposed to those we use in the district right now. They were seeing immediate results and were just starting to fall in love with CKLA. They were talking about it in their lunchtime conversations.

Parents were calling us and saying, “What’s going on over there? All my kid asked for for Christmas was books on the War of 1812,” or “my first-grader is talking about Westward expansion at the dinner table.”

We’re all blown away by what these kids know and are retaining as far as deep rich content. Our librarian has figured out what she needs to order for next year that she didn’t have this year; she can’t keep certain books on the shelves, and that’s all stemming from CKLA.

Sometimes I equate it to crackers: We may have had Saltines for a long time and enjoyed them until the Ritz came around, and they’re golden and good for all. CKLA is really leveling the playing field in the classroom. No matter what a student’s background or socioeconomic status, CKLA really levels the playing field. It lets kids grow independently and also enables a classroom to grow collectively.

Most boxed curricula come and they’re written for the average student—not low or high, but average. In everything I’ve seen so far with CKLA, it has rich and deep content and rich strands. Those in the middle are stretched further than they normally would be. We’re seeing significant improvement for all of our kids.

In March, one of our classrooms had 90 percent of the kids meeting the district standards for the May cutoff—so they were meeting May expectations in March. This is what our teachers are finding super exciting.

Some of our highest achieving students really struggled with CKLA’s listening and learning strand in the beginning. They were used to just kind of being exceptional with what we had given them in the past. They had to stretch themselves a bit more. The curriculum is built such that it’s right above the middle with rigorous content, so higher-end learners are getting what they need as well.

And as for that second-grade girl I mentioned? The quiet one who was placed in special education? Recently her teachers visited one of our kindergarten teachers with five examples of a student’s stellar work, asking her to guess which of her previous students they belonged to. The teacher couldn’t figure it out, and when they told her it was this kiddo who had had so many challenges showing us what knowledge and skills she had in the past, she couldn’t believe it. The great news is that this student was exited out of special ed this spring and is performing well alongside her second-grade classmates.

The listening and learning strand of CKLA was huge for her because it started to build her confidence and unlocked the gate that was closed. She was always very quiet but always wanting to give answers—very deep, rich answers. Her comprehension is better than her decodability, and CKLA helped her build up the skills she needed, and we saw her writing improve 100 percent and her learning improve 100 percent.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


  1. I hope Ms. Awbrey spreads this story all around Washington state: the word needs to get out. Two intrepid elementary teachers in my CA district have started using the K-2 Core Knowledge curriculum they found on the EngageNY website. They’re loving it. They too report that parents remark how their kids talk enthusiastically about what they’re learning.

    Comment by Ponderosa — June 10, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  2. Here is a child who under one educational program “seemed to be struggling” and was behind others. So she “qualified” for special ed classes. Then under another program she bloomed, and exited out of special ed. This inspires questions. What was it that she was being taught in the first program, and how was it being done? In what ways was the second program different? What was being taught and how was it being taught to make such a change? Does this suggest that perhaps other children who “qualify” for special ed might not need it either? The account speaks of other children who apparently had not “qualified” for special ed but who reacted much better to the second program. Would it not be desirable to begin to discuss questions such as these?

    Comment by Susan Toth — June 10, 2014 @ 11:55 am

  3. Hi Susan,

    You raise very important questions. Since many schools have started using response to intervention, the lines between regular and special education have blurred (thankfully) in the early years. It remains the case, however, that far too many children are placed in special education simply because their reading instruction was not state of the art. I think you’ll find this issue of American Educator helpful, especially the article by Torgesen: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/fall2004/index.cfm.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — June 10, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

  4. There’s another question that needs to be asked following all of these anecdotal stories. Who will write about the student that was performing within grade level that has now fallen behind with the change in curriculum?

    Comment by ewaldoh — June 10, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

  5. Thanks, Lisa. I’ll go more into the article you recommend after work! But still I have questions. For example, after a hundred years, how is it possible to say: We have the tools to teach reading right the first time? Have we not had the tools to do so for so long? Also, you speak of instruction not being state of the art. What is “state of the art?” Why is instruction sometimes not state of the art?

    I think that ewaldoh’s question definitely needs to be explored also!

    Comment by Susan Toth — June 10, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

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