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For that, Amato has relied on something called Success For All. The phonics-based reading program, packaged and promoted by a nonprofit in Baltimore, can cost more than $3 million for schools to implement.
Amato purchased Success for All in Hartford and in New Orleans. He had been in Kansas City for little more than a week when he started pushing it.
Amato says Kansas City lacked a standardized reading program. "We needed to do something dramatic here to raise the scores. I went to the board and said, 'We can do nothing and spend a year talking about it, and next year we'll be in the same place. Or we can do something right now, and I guarantee we won't be in the same place next year.'"
But Judy Morgan, who is president of the Federation of Teachers Local 691, says two reading programs were in place before Amato's arrival.
By the end of Amato's first month on the job, July 2006, the school board had agreed to put Success for All in 15 middle schools for the academic year that would start just a month later.
This surprised even the people at Success for All's main office.
"We have done things fast before, but this is the fastest I've ever seen the program implemented," says Sandra Pool, area manager for the program. Her territory includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming, along with the Kansas City district in Missouri. Pool is quick to praise teachers and administrators for their willingness to participate, but she admits that many teachers likely did not receive proper training.
"It was a rush on our end to get training rooms and materials together — especially training rooms, because that time of year you have so much going on in high schools," she says. "My guess would be several teachers didn't get training either because they went to the wrong place or got the wrong information. But if they didn't get it, we offered makeup training for anyone hired after the fact. So there were opportunities."
One teacher paints a different picture.
Bob Furrey is a special education teacher who has worked in the Kansas City, Missouri, district for 19 years. He teaches sixth-graders at Northeast Middle School. Before that, he was the superintendent at Climax Springs in the Lake of the Ozarks. (No stranger to the politics that can influence school administrators, he admits to being fired from that post.)
Furrey describes the Success for All training as chaotic.
He says Success for All's trainers were prepared to teach the program to around 40 people. "They had 40 copies of the material, a room for 40 people. Then 178 showed up," he says. "We had no idea why we were there. We had no idea what we were doing. And all this is while we're trying to get classrooms together for the fall. We walked out at the end of it with no idea what was going on, and I don't think a single principal agreed on what the program was supposed to be."
Last month, as Amato presented the school board with his budget for the next fiscal year, he said Success for All had resulted in a 20 percent increase in students reading at or above their grade levels. He based the statistic on quarterly computerized tests that he had implemented.
Furrey disputes Amato's claim. He says the tests became such a regular exercise that most students stopped caring about them. "I know kids were going in there and taking five minutes to do these," he says.