TOWNVILLE — “Taking risks is OK,” the colorful sign outside the door notifies visitors. “Risk-takers at work.”

For the nine second-graders who spend their mornings building reading skills in Nancy Kopf’s classroom at Maplewood Elementary School, participating in activities like reading and writing has traditionally been a perilous undertaking. But while dealing with letters and words is not something that comes easily for these young learners with special needs, they no longer find themselves associating “school” with “failure.”

As educators throu-ghout the county, state and nation attempt to comply with the federal mandate to leave no child behind, all-out efforts are being made to find and implement “research-driven techniques that work.” PENNCREST Sch-ool District is no exception.

No one who has spent time with Kopf is likely to use the terms “low-key” or “laid-back” to describe her approach to life. These days, however, the veteran teacher is really excited. Maplewood’s literacy coach, Elaine Rudy, has been working closely with the faculty at Ohio State University to bring Literacy Collaborative®, a long-term professional development program designed to raise the level of achievement for all elementary students, to the school. Following the successful completion of a 2004-’05 pilot, the program is now going districtwide.

“I started dabbling in Literacy Collaborative® techniques last year, but I wasn’t anywhere close to doing it,” Kopf recalled. With the help of ongoing training and books, she’s been implementing the program more fully since September. Already, she’s seeing results beyond her wildest expectations.

“When some of these kids came in February, they didn’t have their alphabet,” Kopf said. “They didn’t know any — or only a few — sounds. Now they’re at mid-first-grade level. Some of these kids have already made a year’s progress. For a child with special needs, that is phenomenal.”

Examples abound. “There’s one boy I can hardly get out of the writing center,” she said, her smile radiating pure joy. “Last year, they kept journals. At the end of the year, his writing was along the lines of, ‘I see the dog. I have a cat. I love my mom.’ ”

Shortly after Halloween, she continued proudly, the same student wrote a very different kind of story. “I am at my friend’s house for trick-or-treat getting lots of candy,” he wrote. “We scared lots of people. I am a vampire. My friend is a cowboy. When we go home, we sort our candy. We have lots of fun. We stayed up and watched a scary movie and then we went to sleep.”

Progress counts

This new-found success is based on an assortment of factors, according to Kopf. For these second-graders, for example, the number of items they get right or wrong is simply no longer relevant. To borrow an advertising slogan from General Electric, progress is their most important product.

“I call this the idea center,” Kopf explained, referring to a table where small groups of students gather for phonetic-related activity. “It’s not the writing center, because these kids know from long experience that they don’t know how to write — or at least they don’t think that they know how to write.” While at the table, students generate ideas without worrying about details like spelling and punctuation.

Once the idea has taken shape, it’s time to move on to what they refer to as “publishing” — the process of producing a finished piece of work. “That’s when we edit,” Kopf continued. “I never saw a group of kids so excited about fixing up mistakes before — ever. We don’t say they’re fixing mistakes — they’re just editing.”

Changes extend even to basic classroom supplies. Traditionally, Kopf explained, the very si-ght of a page full of empty lines could inspire enough anxiety to trigger a debilitating case of writer’s block. Now, each student can select the proper format for whatever they want to write, ranging from a line or two accompanied by a large rectangle for an illustration to a full 12-line sheet.

Then there’s the noise level in the room. “We expect these children to have language, but many of them come from homes where there’s not a lot of talking going on,” she explained. “We used to say, ‘Don’t talk.’ Now we encourage it. You’d be surprised how the language of these children, who only had a very limited vocabulary at the beginning of the year, has developed. They’re now talking about sunspots — and all kinds of things — because they’re being allowed to have conversations at the idea center.” Most of those conversations actually revolve around what’s going on at the idea center, she added with a grin. “Sometimes they don’t, but I’ve never seen adult conversations stay on topic for very long, either.”

Summing up her experience so far, “We’ve seen programs come and we’ve seen programs go — and I hope this stays around for a long time,” Kopf said. “It’s a combination of phonics, language and experience. You take all the best from every program and you throw it together and you have a great program.”

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at

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