Walking into a classroom one day recently, West Handley Elementary Principal Julie Moynihan observed “Oops, Wrong Rhyme” going on. The rhyming game is a big hit with the kids.
In the game, the teacher points to an object – in this case on her body – and the game begins.
“This is my mist,” the teacher says.
“Oops, wrong rhyme!” the students exclaim in unison. “That is not your mist, that is your wrist. Mist and wrist rhyme!”
While the game may seem elementary, its purpose and impact are central to learning and literacy. West Handley’s enrollment is primarily minority, with 67.7% of the 505 students classified as Hispanic during the 2018-19 school year and another 26.5% are African American. State-defined criteria for the Fort Worth ISD school lists 50.3% as limited English proficiency, 75.2% as at-risk and 97.2% as economically disadvantaged.
“Explicit instruction is super critical for my students,” said Principal Moynihan, who’s in her fifth year at the elementary in east Fort Worth. “Since reading is not natural and many of our students come with a language gap, we have to be crystal clear about how to decode and phonics instruction. And our practices are fun.”
Hence, a game of “Oops, Wrong Rhyme.”
“The students were having so much fun with this game they didn’t realize that it was refining oral language knowledge as well as rhyming skills,” Principal Moynihan continued.
West Handley has seen gains under Principal Moynihan and her staff, which has worked diligently to the understand the science of reading and implement researched-based strategies to increase literacy levels. There’s a need to be creative in filling those early literacy language gaps while explicitly teaching students how to read while dealing with an extremely transient population.
West Handley utilizes a three-pronged approach to getting students on grade level:
- Start with high quality foundational instruction in the early years. The school uses Neuhaus/Esperanza which has led to great results for students.
- Three interventionists on campus identify and remediate specific gaps in foundational literacy for students.
- Ensure students have continual access to grade level text, whether that be through independent reading or through read aloud. Teachers use this time to model thinking and understanding of text to students.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, West Handley had several local partners, including Fidelity and Bridgewood Church of Christ, read with students as reading mentors.
“I think our part of our gain in literacy can be attributed to the fact that we have so many adults investing in student literacy success. From the classroom teacher to a community reading mentor and possibly even a campus interventionist, adults want to see students grow,” said Principal Moynihan, who’s been in FWISD since 2007. “We believe that every person is wonderfully made for a purpose and it our responsibility to equip each other for that purpose.
“We have four core values that we talk about daily and are embedded into our school motto and actions: Respect, Teamwork, Belonging and Growth Mindset. All four of these values go hand in hand with how we want students and adults to think and act with themselves and each other.”
Every six weeks, celebrations highlight students that have been exemplar models of the core values. Staff is also recognized for these same values. Crucial conversations with staff or students are centered around alignment or misalignment with these values.
“We promise every day to stay positive and respectful in our interactions,” Principal Moynihan said. “We remind students to work with others to persevere and grow. We promote inclusion of others and celebration of everyone. We pledge to be better each day and that if we fall, we get back up, and if another falls, we help them up.”
Everyone at West Handley brings something special to the table. Students bring perspective and experiences, providing alternate ways at looking at things that teachers might not have. Teachers bring expertise and creative thinking to the equation. Together, they bring a love and a desire for learning.
At the end of the day, students and those entrusted with their care make West Handley special.
“Our students really do want to be better every day and they work diligently to demonstrate our four core values,” Principal Moynihan stated proudly. ‘They are the most loving students I have encountered. Our staff goes above and beyond to do things to help our students. They regularly provide food, clothing and supplies for students out of their own pockets. Aside from the tangible items, staff are constantly thinking of new ways to anchor in learning for students, if even for that one child.”