This is the second story in a series about how principals can be literacy leaders in their schools. Read the introductory article here.
Patricia Brekke got her start in education 25 years ago as a bilingual language arts teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Born and raised in the city as the child of Mexican immigrants, she made it a priority to support biliteracy among her students who came to the classroom with limited English skills. Rather than asking them to leave their first languages behind, she wanted them to see the value in their native language as they gained another.
Brekke’s students, however, often struggled on standardized tests because of their literacy skills. They were being held to the same bar as native English speakers on tests that required language fluency to prove their knowledge. It was clear they needed more literacy instruction, and it needed to happen across subjects.
When Brekke became an assistant principal, she found a new platform from which to champion literacy, this time more broadly. She engaged teachers of science, math, social studies and other subjects and challenged them to embrace the idea that literacy instruction cannot be limited to English classes.
“It became a priority for us to shift our thinking and restructure our program so that we were really infusing deep literacy into all of our subjects, including fine arts and PE,” Brekke said.
At first, the response wasn’t so much resistance from teachers who didn’t want to incorporate literacy into their subject areas, but claims that they already were.
Instead of mandating changes, Brekke asked teachers to come to their own conclusions with her after considering examples of strong literacy education in subjects beyond English and Language Arts.
“That’s when they started to realize, “Oh, I’m not doing it like that,’” Brekke said.
She got buy-in throughout the school from teachers who recognized students were not getting high enough scores on the reading portions of state exams and realized they could help change that. As principal, she led a reorganization of curriculum that prioritized literacy across all subject areas.
Now, Brekke serves as the founding principal of Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, a public school that opened in 2013 on Chicago’s southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community. She brought 14 teachers from her last school, all of whom embraced the commitment to literacy — and biliteracy. Beyond the Spanish-speaking population in Back of the Yards, Brekke says her school also has a significant number of Chinese-speaking English language learners. All of these students benefit when they can continue learning new material in their first languages while improving their English skills.
Every single freshman meets “on-track” criteria, which means they have enough credits to move on to 10th grade and they have failed no more than one semester course in a core subject area. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found this metric to be a powerful predictor of high school graduation. This year’s seniors are expected to be proof. Last year, as the school’s first class of juniors to take the ACT, about two-thirds of them scored at least a 22 out of 30 and Brekke expects all of them will be college-bound.
But she estimates the average freshman enters the school with a sixth-grade reading level.
“More than getting kids to read or teaching them how to read, we are focusing on really building vocabulary,” Brekke said. She found her students often lacked the vocabulary they needed to read and understand complex texts, and they needed help with more advanced sentence structure, as well as basic grammar.
At Back of the Yards College Prep High School, teachers in all subject areas work to strengthen student reading and writing skills. And they approach it with strategies gained in professional development. While Brekke says her staff has used supplemental programs, including Achieve3000 and ThinkCERCA, professional development has been a key to eventual student improvement. Teachers have learned how to incorporate more reading into their disciplines and explored blended learning strategies to offer targeted supports for students.
For principals who don’t come to the job with the literacy experience she does, Brekke recommends listening to language arts teachers about the gaps they see in student work. Watching math, science and history teachers can also provide a clue. Are students memorizing facts and figures or being asked to speak, read and write during their lessons?
From there, Brekke suggests collaboration.
“Getting people to start talking about what they’re having kids do and how kids are performing on those tasks is really critical to engage in that professional learning as a team and have their ‘Come to Jesus’ moment,” Brekke said.