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The Spark - September 2021
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If you were like me last year, you felt like you could never do enough. You were working around the clock, and it still felt like you couldn’t get it all done. As we settle into our routines for this school year, you may feel the stress creeping back as you worry about how to make up for the opportunities your students missed last year.
At the same time, an onslaught of even more stressful controversies are crashing in on us -- whether it is the hot button issue of masking or critical race theory or any number of other political issues. I’ve always said every social issue at some point becomes intertwined into public education, and this year is proof of that axiom. But that doesn’t make any of this easy. I want you to know that I understand you are having to shoulder all of this while trying to model how to be a good leader for your students.
I have one thing to ask of you. Please, give yourself grace.
You have gone to extraordinary lengths to support your students. There is no magic wand for reversing the lost learning opportunities that your students may have experienced last year. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but through it all, please remember to be kind to yourself and be confident. You’ve got this.
Remember to breathe and just take one day at a time. Every day you will make a difference, and it will add up to a significant impact on your students’ lives.
I also have to remind myself to breathe and take things one step at a time because sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the work ahead. Our job at CDE is to support you and your districts, and I often feel that we can never do enough.
We spent the summer listening to ideas from parents, educators, students and other stakeholders from across the state on how we should invest our federal COVID-relief funds in ways that would be the most beneficial for our students. In August we received the results of our statewide assessments -- although participation was low in some communities and with some groups of students, the results provided a sobering view of student achievement last year. CMAS scores were down in every grade and every content area.
What we heard from teachers and saw through our assessment results is that we can’t go back to doing things the way they were before the pandemic. That’s why I was so pleased that the State Board of Education approved our plan for spending the $132 million in federal COVID-relief funding that Colorado received for state-level strategies. Our plan is to laser focus on programs that are effective in accelerating learning and student engagement.
Our plan invests in strategies that we know will work -- like high-dosage tutoring and effective before- and after-school programs -- while at the same time creating space to support innovative programs that can make a difference.
We will also provide high-quality instruction materials for districts that need it, and we will provide professional development to help educators fill in gaps they may have.
You can see our full plan on our website. It’s a good plan -- it points us in the right direction. But there is still so much work to be done to actually implement it in ways that will be most helpful to you and your school and district leaders.
So I will be joining you in taking lots of deep breaths and reminding myself to take things one day at a time.
Together, we will make a difference for our students each and every day.
Jennifer Moylett, the principal of a small rural elementary school in northern Colorado, has seen firsthand the benefits of professional development her school has undertaken on the science of reading – courses approved by the Colorado Department of Education to improve early literacy instruction.
Moylett, who has been an educator for 16 years and now is principal of Highland Elementary School in Weld RE9, was a newcomer to the science of reading – which stems from brain research and focuses on the five components of reading instruction.
“It wasn’t long into the courses that I realized I didn’t have a good foundational understanding of the Science of Reading, only bits and pieces,” Moylett said. “I should have learned this in college.”
But that is not what pushed Moylett’s school to offer the training for every K-5 teacher in her school. She witnessed the improvement of students once her teachers began teaching students in the new ways learned from professional development.
The PD is a new requirement under the state’s READ Act – a legislative effort to make Colorado’s younger students better readers. Under the READ Act, all K-3 teachers in Colorado must provide evidence of completing evidence-based training in teaching reading by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. Districts with teachers who don’t finish the training won’t get READ Act funds for the 2022-23 school year.
“What I had seen in our classrooms was a lot of leveled readers,” she said. “That’s what we knew, and that’s what I did as a primary educator. Teachers, like me, had been teaching kids to read using pictures to guess words or ‘read.’”
She said an example of the power of teaching reading differently occurred when she was reading with her elementary-aged son, who had just brought home a book from the library on the NFL team, the Arizona Cardinals.
Her son, however, didn’t know the word “Cardinals.”
“I said, ‘look at the picture on the cover.’”
He said, “Red birds?”
That was Moylett’s first “aha” moment. Instead of using the photo to cue her son to the word, she switched and began using her understanding of the science of reading, which focuses more on sounding out and breaking apart words, to help her son.
“She suggested, ‘Let’s break down the word by syllables.’” She then watched her son break the word into parts and reread the word entirely.
“The next day I was able to use this as an example with the teaching team. Our teaching at Highland has become more explicit and intentional as we have implemented the strategies from the science of reading,” Moylett said.
“We are teaching kids to read and decode, not to guess at words,” she said. “Like the word, ‘fantastic.’ ‘Tas’ and ‘tic’ are not real words. But pull them together with ‘fan’ and they make a word. It is important to do all these little things -- like explicitly teaching the syllable types and vowel sounds, as well as practicing nonsense words, as part of the foundational skills instruction. That was a big learning point for us.”
The Highland team is hoping to couple their knowledge on the science of reading with a new curriculum to close academic gaps in literacy.
“Last spring, teachers reflected that they heard less guessing and more decoding from students,” Moylett said. “Students aren’t looking at the word and then at the teacher for help. Students are saying, ‘I know this part. I know how to bring this word together!’”
The READ Act is the state’s mandate to ensure that all children learn how to read at grade level by third grade. Once children learn to read, they can begin to read to learn. The approach now is to help teachers learn evidence-based reading instruction that is focused on developing the foundational reading skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, including oral skills and reading comprehension.
In 2019, the legislature added in the provision that teachers needed to learn evidence-based reading instruction because the state had shown little improvement in early literacy. In the six prior years that the READ Act had been implemented in Colorado, schools were not seeing dramatic improvement in reading levels. In fact, Colorado had seen only a 2% increase in third graders meeting or exceeding expectations on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests in English language arts over that time. Further, statewide data showed only a 1% reduction in the number of students identified with a significant reading deficiency.
Stephanie Wartenbe has been a first-grade teacher at Highland Elementary for seven years. The professional development that she and her colleagues undertook last year had an immediate impact.
“The big ‘aha’ moments for me were learning about how the brain works and the true progression of reading,” she said. “If the teaching team is aligned with instructional knowledge, curriculum, resources and materials, then we can strategically close academic gaps.”
Phonemic awareness is the first step to understand how to read, she said.
“As teachers we can ask kids things like, ‘how many sounds do you hear in that word?’ or ‘what is the beginning/ middle/ end sound in the word?’” she said. “Then we can move more into mapping out words. It is a progression of skills and learning.”
Reading has improved at all levels, she said.
“We made leaps and bounds in a short time, even our struggling students were decoding words and telling us syllable types,” Wartenbe said. “We had excellent end-of-the-year reading growth.”
The training has been a welcome addition to the school and for the staff, she said.
“At first, 45 hours of extra training, on top of teaching full time, felt overwhelming for our team,” Moylett and Wartenbe agreed. “But as soon as we jumped in, we were flooded with skills, strategies and most importantly the knowledge that we could implement right away. All educators would benefit from training like this.”
Statewide results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests and the PSAT and SAT tests taken last spring showed significant decreases in achievement across all tested grades and subject areas as well as decreases in participation.
The results were not surprising due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that affected learning throughout Colorado. Nevertheless, the results from the tests, which are the only common measurements of student learning across the state, provide critical information on learning in Colorado and can support the evaluation of future COVID-19 recovery efforts.
“We recognize how hard students and teachers worked through the difficulties during last school year, and we know that there were reduced or disrupted learning opportunities for students, schools and districts,” said Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes. “These test results give us sobering data that confirm just how hard last year was with school closures, class quarantines and remote learning.
Families will soon receive an individual report that will show the subject areas where their child is excelling as well as where they may need more support. Teachers and families are encouraged to consider student results within the context of the variety of learning disruptions they may have encountered.
Because the spring 2021 tests and expectations were consistent with tests from previous years, results can continue to give families and teachers information about whether students are meeting grade-level expectations of the Colorado Academic Standards.
More than 200 educators from 30 different school districts across Colorado accessed the Well-Being Support Line last school year – a resource being offered again this year for any educator.
The free service offered through the University of Colorado’s Department of Psychology and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s Colorado Spirit Crisis Counseling program is available to any educator across the state, including teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, health care teams and support staff.
Educators and school employees seeking support can talk to a trained crisis counselor volunteer from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week via telephone or text message. When educators call, they will be asked to leave a phone number, and a staffer will call or text back. Trained volunteers will listen, offer ideas for problem solving, self-care, or community resources. If an educator needs more support or ongoing mental health care, the staff will help connect callers with more support or ongoing mental health care. Call or text 303-724-2500 or visit this link for more information.
Visit the Colorado Educator Support webpage for more information regarding resources, including an online support program to learn more about skills and strategies for educators to learn how to support themselves and their students with strategies and skills and to learn more about stress, trauma, depression and wellness.
An exciting professional development opportunity is being offered for aspiring educational leaders of color through the Colorado Association of School Executives. The Leadership, Equity and Diversity Program is meant to help build a more representative, diverse and equitable candidate pool for leadership positions in both school and district administration across our state.
The LEAD program is made up of six-sessions that run from October through March. Specific sessions dates are posted on CASE’s LEAD Program webpage. Sessions will consist of instructor presentations, self-reflection, online discussions, learning assignments and networking opportunities.
A nominal fee of $95 is required to participate. Program participants may also apply for college credit through Adams State University or for CDE contact hours for recertification.
Those interested can fill out the application on the program webpage. Applicants must also have a formal letter of approval from their supervisor to participate. Applications are due via email to Arlene Salyards, CASE’s director of professional learning, at email@example.com, by Monday, Sept. 27. Candidates will be notified of acceptance status by Friday, Oct. 1.
- When kids pick their 'trusted adult,' it pays off, Aug. 25, 2021. The Hechinger Report
- Across the country teachers are trying out a new approach to math thanks to a Colorado teacher. Aug. 19, 2021
- Colorado leaders urge school districts to require masks: "These trends are troubling", Aug. 18, 2021, Chalkbeat Colorado.
- Colorado teacher explains how teaching with a clear mask helps, Aug. 27, 2021, CBS Denver 4
COVID-19 Learning Impacts Toolkit
CDE created a COVID-19 Learning Impacts Toolkit to help district and school leaders plan and implement strategies to address the impacts of lost instructional time on the learning and well-being of students over the past school year. The toolkit provides a variety of new and existing strategies to help school and district leaders address the impacts of the pandemic on the learning and well-being of students and staff. The key themes of the toolkit are Reflect, Reset, Reimagine. CDE will continue to add resources to the toolkit over the next year to help district and school leaders adapt to the evolving needs of students.