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Education Reformer Star of the Week: Pati Montgomery

• Cari Miller

Colorado is a cool state in so many ways – the best place to ski, the Broncos rock (although Peyton Manning doesn’t do anything for me), and the Rockies, well, I just love their name – so fitting! But one of the main reasons Colorado is so great is because of Pati Montgomery.

I became a third grade teacher because of my own struggles in learning to read (which didn’t become apparent to my teachers until I failed my 9th grade English honors course.) I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.

I taught in Tallahassee, Florida, when the state’s third grade policy was enacted. I witnessed struggling readers become successful ones with effective reading instruction and intervention (and a lot of dedication and persistence – oh and a fantastic principal.) I believed ALL kids could learn, and still do. I went on, as a reading coach, to serve more students through their teachers, and then as a reading specialist for the state of Florida. I’ve been at the foundation since 2011, and one of the things I love the most about my job is working with my counterparts in other states. We are a merry band of eternal optimists, who know that if we can get it right on reading, America will reap the benefits.

I knew instantly on my first phone call with Pati Montgomery that she was the right person to lead Colorado’s reading efforts. She is passionate about the science of reading – and she wakes up every day thinking about how to help teachers teach the way they should.

She was recently appointed as the Executive Director of the Office of Literacy in the Colorado Department of Education to implement the Colorado READ Act among other literacy initiatives. A former teacher and school principal, she has dedicated most of her life to helping students become successful, lifelong readers. Why? Her son was a struggling reader.

Pati’s son, Ben, was very bright, but he struggled with reading. Pati would watch him day in and day out struggle with reading and saw how it impacted his self-esteem. He was a fantastic athlete; however he missed out on many summer sports camps to receive additional reading instruction to help him improve his literacy skills. She began to study up on effective reading instruction, finding the best strategies to teach him and other kids how to read. She made it her mission to find out what it took to improve children’s literacy skills to help ensure future success.

She knew as a teacher she could impact the kids she served, but she wanted to have a bigger impact – she wanted to help all children. Soon after, she became Prinicpal of Eiber Elementary School.  Eiber’s student body was one that most people would write off — with 77% minority students, 85% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and roughly half the students were English Language Learners. In addition, it was the lowest performing elementary school in the district. Within 3 years, Eiber Elementary School drastically improved reading achievement going from 37% to 63% of students reading proficiently and decreasing the percent of students scoring at the lowest level – from 30% to only 4%. Unbelievable results! Pati’s school earned the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award and was recognized for closing the achievement gap.

Her success at Eiber Elementary led her to a principal position at a middle school that needed serious help improving the reading skills of students. She ended up, not only the principal of O’Connell Middle School, but also the leader of a grant for five additional elementary schools in her county. The grant, the Alameda Literacy Plan Grant, was implemented and all schools participating saw sweeping improvements in student reading achievement, two schools earning National Title I Schools of Distinction awards, two schools earning the title of Gates Foundation Award Winners, and overall recognition for closing the achievement gap.

So, how’d she do it? When I asked Pati, she shared her secret recipe for success:

  • Effective professional development for principals and teachers based on the science of reading
  • Holding teachers and principals accountable for student reading achievement
  • Analyzing student assessment data and using it to drive targeted instruction for all students
  • Having a system/structure in place to help ensure teachers have the resources to be successful
  • Communicate the importance of literacy with all stakeholders, especially parents
  • Celebrate all successes – Just to name a couple of examples: Pati called parents personally when individual students met one of their literacy goals; she also provided punch and cookies for teachers and students to celebrate their successes on a frequent basis.

Pati knows the importance of literacy. She knows it personally and professionally. She knows that students who cannot read by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And this drives her to continue her work each and every day. Pati has made it her mission to do whatever it takes to help ensure educators know how to effectively teach reading using research-based practices to better equip Colorado students for future success. We need more Pati Montgomerys.

About the author

Cari Miller

Cari Miller serves as Policy Director of Early Literacy for ExcelinEd. She works hand in hand with states pursuing a comprehensive approach to K-3 reading policy, and she supports state departments with effective policy implementation. Cari is a former elementary teacher and reading coach. She also served as the Deputy Director of Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. At Just Read, Florida!, she served in other capacities, including: Elementary Reading Specialist, Director of Reading First and Director of Elementary Reading. Her sole mission is to improve student reading achievement across the nation.