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Building a "why" into district literacy programs

Building the ‘why’ into a districtwide literacy implementation

A dean of elementary literacy explains how she is working with multiple stakeholders to get buy-in across a large district

At Rockford Public Schools, we have a strong commitment to literacy growth. We take a comprehensive approach beginning with our foundational curriculum.

Foundational literacy instruction accounts for 50 minutes of the literacy framework; this includes up to 30 minutes for core instruction and 20 minutes engaged in the aligned software. Extended transfer beyond the Daily Core 4 is embedded within the framework as well. Other components of the RPS literacy framework include Integrated Literacy which integrates English language arts standards, Next Generation Science Standards, C3 standards, and some health standards. The elementary schools use Units of Study Writing as the core writing resource aligned to standards. 

Our students spend about 210 to 220 minutes per day in the area of literacy instruction and practice. One area we’ve recently been working on improving is the consistency of language and approach when it comes to explicit phonics instruction and the science of reading. We have a number of students with gaps in literacy. It is imperative that all of our teachers, instructional coaches , and administrators share a common language and instructional practices to support all students in the area of literacy.

With approximately 29,000 students and 42 schools, including 21 elementary schools, special program schools, and four early childhood centers, Rockford Public Schools is quite large, so implementing changes takes a lot of time. I have learned how important it is to ensure teachers understand the reasons behind instructional shifts so that they are fully invested in using effective resources and practices.

Aligning on the ‘why’

To offer students explicit and systematic phonics instruction and practice—and to ensure the approach and language we used to deliver it was consistent across grade levels and schools—we implemented Reading Horizons Discovery in kindergarten through second grade in 2017; many third grade classrooms opted to implement the program as well. Since the original roll-out of the program, much research in the science of reading has confirmed that this program aligns to best practices in phonics instruction.

During year one, we offered our teachers professional learning opportunities specific to the new program. In reflecting back on the initial roll-out, I strongly believe that we should have led training from the lens of why our students need explicit, systematic, and sequential phonics instruction. Implementing change can feel overwhelming at first, but understanding why change needs to happen can increase buy-in. More recent training begins with how readers learn how to read and how our program of instruction aligns to effective phonics instruction. Implementation is improving as teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators build capacity in effective phonics instruction.  

Educators deserve to feel confident in what they are teaching, and our students deserve confident teachers. Support around what, how, and why to teach is helping to build confidence in the area of foundational literacy instruction.

Why instructional shifts are difficult to make

The pendulum in instructional practices swings frequently in education. It often knocks the wind out of many people when it swings hard and fast. The changes in teaching practices can truly be paralyzing at times. When so many things change at once, it is difficult to inspire and support these shifts in a large district. It can also feel defeating when so much effort is put in each day but academic growth is not evident right away. Seeing improved results can require patience and time, but patience is a difficult virtue to practice when there is so much urgency around supporting our students in achieving the growth they deserve right now.

Onboarding stakeholders

In order to build capacity around instruction, I consistently collaborate with multiple stakeholders. This includes a core team from the central office, elementary principals, instructional coaches, and teachers. These partnerships help drive our leadership moves around next steps for improvement as well as expanding areas of strength.

A few examples of professional learning that transpired from this collaborative work include Level-Up Professional Learning in spring of 2021 and Refresher Professional Learning in the summer of 2021. Both opportunities provided a focus on specific areas of implementation in which teachers were demonstrating readiness. These areas included reminders and modeling of key components that are small instructional moves but yield a large impact on student engagement, instructional pace, and ongoing assessment. Another area of focus was on the transfer of skills.

Three variables that are consistently linked between implementation and growth in literacy include the implementation of the Daily Core 4 (Review, Instruction, Dictation and Guided Practice, and Transfer); time spent on software and effective use of the data; and transfer of skills beyond the core 30 minutes of instruction.

We focused on ways to design learning opportunities for students to practice transfer skills during small-group and skill-group instruction, the use of connected texts, different ways to utilize transfer cards that align to skills, and games. The teachers who joined these professional learning opportunities expressed that they now have a deeper understanding of why instruction is vital to reading success. They’re enthusiastic about trying new ways to engage students in transfer, they’re gaining confidence in teaching phonics, and they’re ready to go deeper into implementation.

Our current areas of focus include how to effectively use student data to drive instruction. We will also continue to tighten core instruction and support ways to embed foundational literacy instruction across all areas of literacy.

Analyzing data

Even as we are starting to see growth in literacy that correlates with our implementation of Reading Horizons, we are working to inspire confidence by demonstrating our commitment to finding out what works for our students and how we can better serve those who are struggling.

Our Academic Return on Investment team has developed what we call “definitions of success” and is entering its second year of a study into what works, for whom, and at what cost. The team collaborates to determine the correlation between instructional practices and student growth. We also analyze data to determine what variables might cause students to remain stagnant, or drop, in literacy growth.

Supporting families

Family engagement is always critical to student success, so getting families on board with an instructional shift can go a long way towards improving teacher confidence. To that end, at the beginning of our implementation we held a district-level offering to families that focused on Reading Horizons. Some buildings in the district held family literacy nights and highlighted the new program as a method to support students at home. We also communicated to families that they could access the program from their own devices.

Last year’s remote learning provided teachers and families the opportunity to regularly support students in literacy together. Many of our teachers dropped off books and materials to homes so that students could practice literacy skills. Families played a huge role in learning alongside students and collaborating with teachers to encourage students. Additionally, many schools worked tirelessly to send books home over the summer, along with Think Sheets that provided caregivers with prompts and ideas on further engaging students in literacy skills.

After spending time with teachers last spring, I heard loud and clear that providing families with ways to support literacy engagement is an area of need. This is one focus that I have during the 2021-2022 school year. For example, I am hoping to host multiple learning opportunities in which families, and even the wider community, can learn about how our students are gaining literacy skills. The immediate family is a core component to reading success for a child, but educating the community on literacy plays a role in student growth as well.

It is more efficient to get stakeholders invested when they know why we are encouraging them to engage in instructional shifts. Transparency around student growth, creating a shared language around literacy, staying the course, reflection, responsiveness, and getting in the arena with teachers and families have all been vital in moving this implementation forward. As we continue to move ahead with other changes in practice, I strongly believe that lessons learned from prior implementations will serve as the borders on the path we pave.

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