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Strong foundations

 

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Strong Foundations

District 49

 

At a 2013 meeting with district leaders, District 49 Chief Education Officer Peter Hilts took a dramatic step to ensure his team was focused on the children behind the numbers of the district’s early literacy scores.

And what he did launched the district’s successful early literacy initiative that has made D-49 a statewide leader.

Hilts wanted to emphasize the people behind the numbers. District 49’s third-graders had experienced a 4-point drop on the statewide reading assessment that year. District officials determined that, on average, 35 percent of the district’s third-graders were not reading at grade level.

Colorado map showing School District 49

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Schools across the state have struggled with their early readers. A recent state assessment of third-grade English language arts showed only 40 percent of students met or exceeded expectations. Most education officials know the dire academic outcomes for struggling readers. Research has found students who cannot read by the end of the third grade face increasing academic problems and are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Instead of using just the data and research to make his point, Hilts put a face to the problem – literally.  He asked his staff in the northeastern Colorado Springs district to find photos of every district third-grader not reading at grade level and create a video for the meeting. One-by-one, the students’ faces flashed on the screen to a hushed audience. No longer were principals and district leaders in the room thinking about percentages.

“It broke their hearts,” Hilts said. “There were principals crying.”

One principal went back to her school’s book room and looked at the thousands of books that weren’t in the hands of her students. She called to her office every student whose face was in the video and handed each one five books, telling them, “We’re going to get you to a place where you can read these books.”

“It was really impactful,” Hilts said. “This wasn’t a percentage. It was Jacob, Jessica, Andrea and Julio. Getting them to think of them as children really changed the way we approached the problem. That was the corner we turned.”

Five years later, District 49 is among the state’s most successful districts in early literacy. Most of the district’s elementary and charter schools are at or above the reading benchmark in the early grades. Schools have become adept at digging into data and pinpointing what needs to be addressed for each student, said Amber Whetstine, director of learning services.

“We made it a priority,” she said. “Every third grader leaves as a third-grade reader.”

In 2012, Colorado’s legislature passed the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act, also known as the READ Act. It continued the state’s focus on K-3 literacy by mandating quality assessments to identify struggling readers and individual plans for those reading below grade level. The legislation brought more attention to students who were identified as having a significant reading deficiency, created requirements for involving parents and provided funding for interventions.

The law also brought resources, such as the Early Literacy Grant and the Early Literacy Assessment Tool Project, as well as a resource bank of assessments, instructional programming and professional development opportunities that districts may use their own resources to access.

The Colorado Department of Education’s strategic plan aims to focus on the state’s early literacy. Colorado plans to continue to make improvements by promoting and developing high-quality, evidence-based early learning and literacy strategies, as well as expanding professional development for preschool through third-grade teachers. In addition, the state strategic plan pushes for stronger partnerships with local agencies, communities and libraries to support early learning and literacy in preschool through third grade.

In District 49, officials made early literacy the No. 1 priority for elementary schools. Backed by a supportive school board, district officials set out to change how its schools taught reading. First, they wanted to learn from those doing the best work in early literacy and visited schools in other neighboring districts where at least 90 percent of third-graders were reading at grade level.

They found commonalities at every school they visited, despite the demographics. Successful schools had interventions in place for struggling readers, strong leadership and professional development opportunities. Students were given extra time to master skills, schools had robust libraries and parents were actively involved in their child’s reading development.  

District 49 officials began devising their own strategies, examining what measures produced positive impacts in student achievement and growth. They developed a rubric that focused on time, staffing, professional development and use of data. They even launched an initiative for every student to have access to five libraries in their lives – in the community, the school, the classroom, the home and the child’s own personal library.

“Five libraries is about maximizing access and time in text to not only develop reading skills but a love of reading,” said Kristy Rigdon, D-49’s coordinator of literacy performance. “In order to be a better reader, kids must read.”

Providing enough time and support for reading and making sure that time wasn’t interrupted by other events proved to be a particularly effective strategy at improving reading, Rigdon said.

 “For example, if there is a two-hour delay, reading instruction still occurs, or if there is an assembly, literacy instruction is not cut,” she said.

The district changed class schedules to ensure every student had 90 to 120 minutes of reading instruction each day, as well intervention or acceleration for students reading below or above benchmark.

Instruction was added during fall, spring and summer breaks in the form or reading camps where students with active READ plans were invited to continue receiving reading instruction and interventions along with enriching activities around a selected theme. 

“Not everything was found by looking at the data,” said Nancy Lemmond, director of individualized learning. “The leadership found there were holes that could be filled by better managing schedules. Or we had a person who had a background in reading instruction and would be better positioned. It started with the kids’ faces, but then went to looking at the leadership and what is the expectation on the adult part.”

Finally, the district reached out for support from the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Literacy, taking advantage of the resources available through the READ Act.

In 2016 District 49 was awarded funding through the Early Literacy Grant Program that ensures quality early literacy instruction, including targeted and intensive instructional intervention. Three D-49 schools are receiving funding through the grant, which pays for a literacy coach who helps teachers.

Additionally, the district is using the Early Literacy Assessment Tool that gives teachers real-time information about each student’s reading skills, allowing for immediate analysis and recommended activities based on the results. The tool provides recommended activities based on student scores. The activities are quick and easy and can be implemented in small group time as additional practice.

Students are monitored through both DIBELS Next and DIBELS Deep diagnostic tools, which are offered as part of the Early Assessment Literacy tool. The tests have transformed teachers’ and leaders’ abilities to identify bright spots, define challenges for one or more learners and discover innovative ways of improving practices, Rigdon said.

And the district used the READ Act per-pupil funding for interventions, money for tutoring and developing its summer reading program.

“We have taken advantage of everything offered to us,” Rigdon said. “To me, this is legislation gone right because it comes with supports for schools and districts. That support helps tremendously in a district that otherwise has competing priorities.”

Fewer students are showing significant reading deficits on the DIBELS Next tests, and more students are demonstrating proficiency above benchmark, she said.

“Every year we learned more and more about early literacy and assessments,” Rigdon said. “We’ve learned we can’t wait until third grade. The skills the kids need to be proficient really start in kindergarten or the first grade. Phonics skills need to be solid so they can comprehend and read text fluently.”

Teachers are also taking advantage of the state’s READing Foundation Academies, which are no-cost training sessions that focus on explicit and systematic instruction in reading with an emphasis on foundational reading skills. Sixty percent of the elementary school teachers at District 49 have taken advantage of that training. And now the district is holding its own early literacy conferences for teachers from throughout Colorado.

“We’ve gone from a culture of compliance to investment and ownership,” Whetstine said. “A big celebration in my mind is the teachers are sharing what is working and trying to help everyone grow. But that is also a challenge. It is a challenge to maintain momentum.”

To be effective, is to be focused, she said.

“You shouldn’t be distracted by excuse making,” she said. “There is always a way to keep yourself focused. If you set a district-wide priority or initiative, embed that within everything you do.”

Hilts said the most important take-away is to find the balance between looking at data and remembering that each data point is a student.

“Data informs everything for us,” he said. “People who look at the data and blame students don’t get hired. The data tells us, ‘Here is what we need to do to be better adults.’ It’s a culture of adult responsibility that is informed by the data. The data tells us where the gaps are and what training we need.”

Again, it comes down to personalization, Hilts said.

“Are we identifying students below benchmark,” Hilts asked. “Are we relentlessly pursuing getting them to benchmark? This is an important lesson. If you are looking at averages, you are going to leave kids behind. You have to look at individual students.”

The district still has work to do, Hilts said.

“We willed this to happen - our board, our senior leadership,” he said. “It takes commitment, focus and will.  We are not remotely satisfied. If the students aren’t at benchmark by the third grade, we will double and triple down in fourth and fifth. We are going to get these kids to be proficient readers. That is our will. We are not going to leave one kid behind.”


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