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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (414) 410-4567.