It's not all about reading in Cecelia Clark's first grade class.
It gives her time to teach her students even one by one, word by word. Clark and her students spend the first 90 minutes of the day, uninterrupted, on reading. Not spelling. Not in writing workshops. Just reading. This scene unfolds in every classroom from kindergarten to third grade at Wilson Elementary in Anoka.
It's part of Reading First, a federal program meant to improve reading in primary grades. It's helping teach kids to read in 23 schools across Minnesota and hundreds more across the country. The federal government is spending nearly $5 billion on the program, and since 2002, it's been a centerpiece of No Child Left Behind.
But Reading First has been in trouble lately, particularly in the Democratic controlled Congress. The program was meant to winnow out the best ways to teach reading to the youngest kids, then spread the word from school to school. It's targeted at schools challenged by poverty and language barriers.
A federal audit, though, found cozy ties between officials who handed out the program money and people who sold books and tests for the program. The Justice Department is already investigating. Congress responded by slashing Reading First funding.
The program also sparked a battle in Washington between backers of phonics, a sort of letter-by-letter way of teaching reading and a method called whole language. Whole language teaches kids to look at context and use workarounds to help them read.
But Reading First didn't fight that battle in Minnesota.
"You know, those debates are over," says Patty Lenhardt, a reading advisor with the University of Minnesota.
Reading First has focused on teachers, she says.
"I think finally Minnesota stepped up and said, we know what works. Let's make sure teachers know what works. Let them try doing it. Let us really develop them into the best teachers they can be."
At Wilson Elementary, it means teachers don't close the door and stand in front of the class. A steady stream of teachers, administrators and aides are in and out of the classrooms, watching, coaching and sitting down to read with kids. Teachers also meet for regular "data camps" to talk about how their kids are performing and what works. They even watch video of each other at work.
Clark, one of the first grade teachers, is used to that kind of attention.
"It's just more feedback on what I can change to make my instruction better, another way to say, you know what, you could ask this question better, or maybe try this with this student. To become that really good teacher, you have to always have people coming in and observing."
But Reading First isn't just about teachers.
Kids are taking on reading in all kids of ways. Some read or write along with a teacher, others map out the beginning, middle and end of a story. Able readers help their classmates. All this and more happens at the same time, in the same classroom.
Experts say it's making a measurable difference in Minnesota. In many places, students from low income families and kids still learning are reading nearly as well as average kids - one of the main goals the program.
"We see good movement of children out of the lowest third based on national norms, into the middle, and children out of the middle into the top third," says Barbara Taylor, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Reading Research. She's played a key role in shaping Reading First in Minnesota.
The program has had some difficulties elsewhere in the country, it's been a worthy investment in Minnesota, she says.
"It is unfortunate that the program was cut. I think that the current schools that we're working with have had three years of support, and I think its time for them to internally see that this is working, and continue this on their own. But it would be a really great opportunity for more schools to get involved."
Reading First will only run through next year at Wilson and other schools.