Literacy Centers Gain Momentum

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:30:00 AM

By Brett Kell

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Stritch Magazine

When Dr. Molly Shiffler, assistant professor in Stritch’s College of Education and Leadership and director of its Literacy Centers, talks about helping kids discover the joy of reading, it’s hard to get her to stop.

Shiffler, along with the faculty, graduate students and instructors who collectively help the Literacy Centers function at three locations in Milwaukee, is a passionate advocate in the purest sense of the word.

“We know that a student’s level of literacy in third grade predicts their academic success at high school level with 90% accuracy,” she said. “So we owe it to our Milwaukee kids to support that future success as early and as intensely as we can.”

The Literacy Centers provide comprehensive literacy assessment and intervention services for K-12 students in Milwaukee. All students are taught one-on-one or in groups of two to three during 90-minute sessions led by literacy professionals or Stritch undergraduate and graduate students. The research-based instruction they provide emphasizes writing, as well as five key areas outlined by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

The problem

Current statistics on literacy in the U.S., especially among high-poverty students in urban areas, paint an unflattering picture. In Milwaukee, things are even worse.

A new study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress comparing reading skills of fourth- and eighth-grade children in 18 urban school systems published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in May, indicated that Milwaukee Public Schools rank near the bottom, with 12% of students scoring at a level considered proficient or above on the reading test.

A 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that Wisconsin’s African-American students fared worse in reading than in any other state, with 66% of fourth-graders and 52% of eighth-graders scoring below the basic level.

In March, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a cover story on Wisconsin’s fourth-grade reading woes that also pointed out how black eighth-graders fared even worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test than students for whom English is a second language. Fifteen years ago, the Journal Sentinel pointed out, Wisconsin’s fourth-graders exceeded the national average by 12 points. Now they’re dead last.

Hispanic students also fared poorly in the assessment, with 54% of fourth-graders and 40% of eighth-graders scoring below the basic level, compared to 25% of white fourth-graders and just 16% of white eighth-graders below proficient.

Currently in Milwaukee, 25% of adults lack basic literacy skills. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, such individuals are at a 50% greater risk for incarceration, unemployment and substance abuse.

A solution

Stritch and the Literacy Centers are addressing the tremendous need for literacy instruction in the city by supporting Milwaukee Public Schools teachers through a unique approach that current data suggests raises reading test scores.

Shiffler and Dr. JoAnne Caldwell, professor and chair of Stritch’s Ph.D. program in Literacy and Language and a leading national figure on the subject of literacy, designed an intervention model that reflects the complex nature of literacy acquisition called CLIFFTOPS, an acronym for the plan’s primary components.

“The CLIFFTOPS model is unique because not only is it research-based, but the individualized instruction that each student receives is determined by student need, growth and interests,” said Shiffler. “It’s built around inquiry and what the student wants to learn. Our curricula are based in part on engaged motivation, through inspiring self-confidence and success as a reader.”

The model is increasingly being used in urban schools and held up as a model for achieving results. Since expanding from Stritch’s campus to two additional urban sites in fall 2007, the centers have experienced a 200% growth in the number of students served annually, from approximately 50 students then to more than 150 today.

“CLIFFTOPS reflects a diversity of approaches and incorporates all the major aspects of learning to read and to read well,” said Shiffler. Data collected at this point indicated that after 20 hours of individual tutoring, students’ reading comprehension increased at least one whole grade level and their word recognition and accuracy increased almost two grade levels.

The model got its start in 2007 when Shiffler and two research assistants were doing literacy instruction with five students at the Next Door Foundation, an early childhood education center in one of Milwaukee’s most impoverished neighborhoods. After early successes, supported by grants and the enthusiasm of Associate Dean Dr. Linda Gordy and others in the School of Urban Initiatives, Shiffler began training others so that the program could be expanded.


It has. In addition to the main Glendale/Fox Point campus location, centers are now housed at Stritch’s City Center campus in downtown Milwaukee and at Sherman Multicultural Arts School on the city’s west side.

Teachers and support are key

More than 100 Milwaukee-area teachers are now trained in the CLIFFTOPS model, which may be used in one-on-one sessions, small groups, and full classrooms.

Annually, 10-15 Milwaukee Public Schools teachers complete a 40-hour residency with the Literacy Centers that teaches them how to approach intervention with students who struggle most. Shiffler said the model’s principles are easily applied to classroom teaching, but are designed for individualized instruction.

Carolyn Davis, a second- and third-grade teacher at Milwaukee’s Clarke Street Elementary School, has had more than a dozen one-on-one sessions with a third-grade student who is at an early second-grade reading level.

“We do lots of paired reading, where I will read to her, we’ll read in unison, and she will read to me. She’s shown improvement, and she reads more fluently now. She learned to use letters and words while reading to decode meaning and really comprehend stories that she hadn’t in the past.”

In addition to local teachers spreading the word and Stritch’s College of Education and Leadership providing expertise, the Literacy Centers are also supported by state and foundation grants that help ensure CLIFFTOPS training can be expanded and programming can be offered at affordable rates to those who need it most. Fifty percent of students served by the centers qualify for free or reduced-rate instruction.

The centers recently received a $30,000 donation from the Elizabeth A. Brinn Foundation to support its programs. In addition, a three-year, $250,000 Wisconsin Teacher Quality grant served as the genesis of the centers and required the creation of an intervention model that became CLIFFTOPS. Due to the success and growth of the program, that initial grant was renewed through 2012 with another $250,000.

Stritch’s long history of empowering others to read began in 1943, when a reading clinic was opened. In 1956, a program was initiated that led to one of the nation’s first master’s degrees in reading. In 1967, the Reading/Learning Center building, one of the first of its kind in the U.S., opened its doors.

“The work of the Literacy Centers is so important,” said Dr. Tia Bojar, Stritch’s acting provost and dean of the College of Education and Leadership. “What they’ve been able to accomplish represents a hope for the future of our community – that we educate our future citizens so that they can read, write and calculate. Nothing is more important than that.”

To learn more about in-kind donations and other ways you can support the Literacy Centers, visit the Literacy Center's webpage or contact Kathryn Cox at or (414) 410-4567.