DavieLEADS strives to improve kindergarten readiness

Note: This article, by EdNC staff, was originally published on Education NC (EdNC –DavieLEADS strives to improve kindergarten readiness) and is republished here with permission.

Cooleemee Elementary pre-K. All photos by Liz Bell/EducationNC

Davie County is in its second year of the DavieLEADS grant program. That is a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation to improve kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency. Its specific goal is to get kindergarten readiness from 70 percent to 90 percent and third grade reading proficiency from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2022.

In the past few days, we’ve talked about DavieLEADS’ efforts around elementary schools in the county, but another crucial aspect of the initiative is intervening in pre-K classrooms.

NC Pre-K is the hallmark program of North Carolina early childhood education, bringing high-quality pre-K instruction to students around the state. In contrast to North Carolina’s traditional public school system, NC Pre-K is administered by a mix of public and private institutions.

In Davie County, the school district is using DavieLEADS to get private and public pre-K programs on the same page.

“In pre-K, our main goals were number one trying to make sure that all preschool classrooms, NC Pre-K in particular, but preschool across the county — whether they were public schools or private preschool and child care centers or half-day churches — that we’re getting the teachers some of the same information, some of the same curriculum materials, so that everybody has resources to do a high quality job,” said Stephanie Nelson, a preschool collaborative teacher for Davie County.

She talked with EducationNC reporters in the midst of a swirl of students inside a pre-K classroom at Cooleemee Elementary in Davie County. In a word, the classroom looked like chaos, with students moving to and fro, picking up and playing with a variety of items, and talking excitedly.

Nelson said that when it comes to pre-K, looks can be deceiving.

“In preschool, our main goal is for children to learn through play. So, it looks like we are just goofing off, but we are not,” she said.

She went on to explain that every piece of equipment in the room is helping students learn how to do certain things, like manage playing with materials, cleaning up, and interacting with other students.

Some of the big changes Nelson has seen since the implementation of DavieLEADS is increased communication and access to resources.

She explained that pre-K is often separate from the rest of the K-12 education system. They are, in essence, a world apart.

“As you can see, physically here, pre-K stands alone in many places, and you’re the only preschool teacher,” she said.

One of the goals of DavieLEADS is to increase collaboration among preschool teachers across the county. This gives them the natural interaction that many K-12 teachers take for granted. The grant has also allowed Davie County pre-K to access more technology and other resources, including the ability to better collect and analyze data.

Nelson has been working with the DavieLEADS program for two years, but pre-K teacher Jodi Walker was at Cooleemee prior to the grant. She says the technology and programs that help monitor development in pre-K students have been especially helpful. And she says she’s noticed a change in the students since The Mebane Foundation stepped in.

“Do I see a change in them?” she asked. “Yes. They’re more interactive.”

Cooleemee Elementary pre-K. Liz Bell/EducationNC

The pre-K classroom at Cooleemee is, obviously, part of the district’s school system, but through DavieLEADS, Nelson and other district staff are also working with private preschools like Kountry Kids Preschool in Mocksville.

Housed in a stand-alone trailer, the preschool really is in a separate world from the traditional K-12 school, a challenge that separates it from its preschool analogues housed in the traditional school system, according to Lynn Marrs, the site director for NC Pre-K at the facility.

“In my experience in working in an elementary school, they wouldn’t have daily exposure to a school environment,” she said of the students at Kountry Kids.

Kountry Kids pre-K. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Marrs is a former elementary school principal. When she was in a traditional public school setting, she said that preschool students would have regular chances to do simple things that older students take for granted, such as going to the lunchroom, seeing the media center, or even getting exposure to what a kindergarten classroom looks like.

These may seem like simple things, but for preschool students, exposure to what their next level of education is going to look like is a big deal. Through its partnership with Davie County Public Schools, Kountry Kids students do get to make visits to elementary schools, but Marrs said the environment is definitely the big difference between her program and what you might see in a traditional public school.

Other than that, she said the curriculum is pretty much the same. Private NC Pre-K programs have to follow state guidelines around who they hire as teachers and what kind of curriculum they teach, but through the DavieLEADS grant, the school system is trying to coordinate the curriculum between private and public preschools even more, ensuring that the quality of education students get is basically the same no matter the preschool setting.

Student at Kountry Kids. Liz Bell/EducationNC

One of the big advantages of the grant, Marrs said, is the increased resources Kountry Kids has access to. That includes technology, such as programs that allow her school to better assess students using robust data. She said parents were really impressed when Kountry Kids was able to provide more detailed assessments of students thanks to the DavieLEADS grant.

“When we went through report cards and we went through assessments, it was a big eye opener,” she said.

And thanks to the data to which the school now has access, Kountry Kids is better able to differentiate instruction based on the needs of students.

Students at Kountry Kids

When The Mebane Foundation was trying to figure out how best to intervene in Davie County Schools to improve literacy, one of the things it recognized was that it had to create a continuum of educational interventions that started early and extended through the third grade. That’s the big difference with the DavieLEADS grant, according to Larry Colbourne, president of the foundation.

“We went down into the pre-K world,” he said. “Normally, we always got the kids in kindergarten and then try to get them reading by the third grade. We decided to go deeper, and that’s a huge part of this project.”

In year two, DavieLEADS has a long way to go, but Colbourne has already been giving a lot of thought to the future. When the grant is over, if it has been successful, what is a way forward for Davie County? Part of the hope is that the money will have enabled the district to align all its pre-K through elementary grades in such a way that the foundation has been set and the progress can continue. But he recognizes that a monetary infusion will always be helpful.

To that end, he said it’s likely that when the grant is over, The Mebane Foundation will continue to have a role in the district.

“As the Mebane Foundation, I would say, listen, we’re not going to back away,” he said. “Let’s look at what it would cost the state. Maybe we can split the difference. We know if we’re going to sustain, the school system is going to need additional money, and in this environment, it’s difficult to find those funds. Although we’re not going to walk away totally, we would hope in good faith, whether it’s Davie County or anywhere else we’d partner with, that once leadership at the county level sees these types of gains, they would jump in and say we’ll pay some here.”

Here is a video highlighting the EducationNC team’s journey through Davie County reporting on the impact of DavieLEADS.

 

The evolution of Davie County’s elementary schools

Note: This article, by EdNC staff, was originally published on Education NC (EdNC –The evolution of Davie County’s elementary schools) and is republished here with permission.

A student at Mocksville Elementary School in Davie County. Liz Bell/EducationNC

A student at Mocksville Elementary School in Davie County. Liz Bell/EducationNC

With the help of the Mebane Foundation, Davie County has embarked on a mission to improve reading in its elementary schools.  Yesterday, EducationNC talked about the success the DavieLEADS grant has had in helping turn around Cooleemee Elementary, but the initiative is active throughout the other area elementary schools as well.

DavieLEADS is a five-year, $2.5 million grant, with a specific goal to get kindergarten readiness from 70 percent to 90 percent and reading proficiency in third grade from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2022. It began in the 2017-18 school year and the success is already starting to show. After the 2017-18 End-of-Grade test results were announced, the county discovered it had moved up from 45th to 17th out of all 115 districts in the state for third-grade reading proficiency.

Mocksville Elementary is another school that has seen impressive gains from the initiative. When the 2017-18 EOG results were announced, the school found out its grade-level proficiency in third grade had increased to 64.9 percent from 52.9 percent the year before. Teachers and staff who work at the school attribute that to many things, but it’s not hard to draw a direct line to the work of DavieLEADS.

 

Liz Bell/EducationNC

Madison Wyatt and Suzanne Doub, both third grade teachers at the school, point to the work of the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) from last year.

PLCs are essentially where teachers can get together at the school to discuss the standards they’re working with in the classrooms and get a better grasp on how to teach to them. The focus of the schools working under DavieLEADS last year were these PLCs, while this year they are focusing on implementing guided reading.

Wyatt said that the PLCs last year focused on understanding and breaking down the standards so that teachers knew how to really teach them.

“Really, honestly, you can be handsome on a standard … but what are you teaching and how are you teaching it?” she said.

Wyatt explained how she might go about teaching one particular standard: making connections in a text through sentences and paragraphs.

That standard includes a lot of different skills, such as compare and contrast, cause and effect, and understanding sequences. She said she would start out with fiction reading, because it’s easier for teaching cause and effect and compare and contrast. She would focus on one skill in a week, say compare and contrast. The next week, the students would move on to cause and effect, but meanwhile, she would also be looping back to the skill they learned the week before. She does that with each new skill set, introducing a new one while revisiting prior ones. She said that prior to the PLCs, standards were taught far differently.

Shady Grove Elementary Schools. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“We would just say, here’s our standard, we’re going to teach this standard,” she said. “And we would not have thought and processed it like we have.”

Doub said another part of the PLCs last year was getting a firmer grasp on where kids were coming from and where they needed to go.

“We also looked at vertical alignment,” she said. “What are the kids coming to us with, and what do we need to prepare them with for fourth grade?”

For Meaghan Irons, this is her first year at Mocksville teaching third grade. But watching her more veteran colleagues, she is not at a loss for why the school has improved.

“Being the new kid on the block, I can definitely see how they got here,” she said. “They literally come in every week and break apart every standard.”

She said the support she has gotten in Davie County has been phenomenal, and that’s thanks in part to the literacy coaches and professional consultants brought in using funds from DavieLEADS.

“I have literally probably gotten more support and more training in the last year I’ve been here than I got in the last five years at my last school,” she said.

Different schools in Davie County have different levels of needs and resources, and sometimes it doesn’t pay to be well off. While Mocksville and Cooleemee are both Title I schools, meaning that at least 40 percent of the children in the school are low-income, Shady Grove Elementary School is not. That comes with certain advantages, but also some disadvantages. Title I schools are eligible for federal funds that can help with school programs, but Shady Grove doesn’t get any of that extra money. For Shady Grove Principal Sarah Maier, DavieLEADs has helped fill in that gap.

“The level of support that you get is amazing,” she said.

She previously worked in Davidson County where she was most recently at a non-Title I school. There was no reading specialist or instructional coach. Any new programs or initiatives that were introduced were the responsibility of her and her assistant principal to implement.

Guided reading lesson at Shady Grove Elementary Schools. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“Coming from that to a non-Title I school that has a half-time instructional coach … also the help with implementing guided reading. I can see them implementing the … plan in what took our school in Davidson four years; they’re doing it in three months,” she said. “Because they have coaches in there helping them. If you don’t have coaches in there it’s harder to get that implementation as quickly.”

Guided reading, the centerpiece of Davie County’s strategy this year, is part of what’s called a balanced literacy approach, and here’s how it works.

There are different elements that are rotated. One is where a teacher reads aloud from a text that is above grade level. Here, students are just listening. Then there is teacher-directed reading. That is grade-level text that each student is holding or viewing via projection.

“Whether they are on grade level or above grade level, that is their window into how to read grade-level text,” said Nancy Scoggin, one of the consultants who came in to work under the DavieLEADS grant. She said this is the portion where standards are explicitly taught.

Then there is guided reading. These are small groups of students reading texts at their instructional level with the help of the teacher.

“It’s all about the mistakes that they’re making, so that we can see what to do next,” Scoggin said.

These components, combined with writing and working with words, comprise what is called balanced literacy, and they are the components of the guided reading model Davie County is using.

In the video below, Kelly McGilvary, a third grade teacher at Shady Grove Elementary, explains guided reading and what it looks like in her classroom.

The model of guided reading used in Davie County is based on the work of literacy expert Jan Richardson. Schools may say they’re using a guided reading method, but not all strategies are created equal.

Julie Fletcher is a third grade teacher at Mocksville. She has been teaching for 22 years, but this is only her third year teaching third grade. Prior to that, she was a second grade teacher. She said implementing the Jan Richardson model has been a huge change.

“I’ve taught guided reading lessons for years and years, but we’ve never done it in this way,” she said, adding later, “I can see a big difference. And like I said, this is my third year, you know, so just in two years it’s a big change.”

Kids use shaving cream to practice spelling at Shady Grove Elementary School. Liz Bell/EducationNC

The foundation of reading is understanding how words work, and that’s where Letterland comes into play. This is a phonics-based program that aims to teach students aged 3 to 8 how to read, write, and spell. Letterland played an integral role in helping improve Cooleemee, but it’s also implemented throughout Davie County’s elementary schools.

Students at Shady Grove Elementary get a lesson on letters via Letterland. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Amy Spade, a literacy coach at Shady Grove Elementary, is a huge champion of Letterland and its efficacy in helping make kids literate.

“Letterland is like a small island that all these Letterland characters live on. So all the letters become characters,” she said. For example, A is Annie Apple. “The kids meet these characters to learn their letters and sounds, how to spell, how to read,” Spade continued.

In the video below, Spade goes in depth into Letterland.

Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, spends a lot of time visiting the schools his organization is helping. He enjoys seeing the academic progress the schools are making, but especially at this early stage (not even two years in), he’s even more excited at how staff are responding to the changes being made.

“What I’ve seen in the way the teachers, the leadership, and the community has rallied around this initiative, is the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve tried many partnerships with large dollar amounts and large initiatives, but this thing right now is as good as it gets.”

The journey to third graders reading on grade level begins long before third grade, however. It even starts before kindergarten, and that’s where the other part of the DavieLEADS plan comes into play. As mentioned before, one of the goals of the grant is to increase kindergarten readiness in the county from 70 percent to 90 percent, and that means working in preschools.

More on that coming soon.

DavieLEADS gives Cooleemee Elementary a boost

Note: This article, by EdNC staff, was originally published on February 27, 2019 on Education NC (EdNC – DavieLEADS gives Cooleemee Elementary a boost) and is republished here with permission.

Davie County Public Schools got some good news last year. After the 2017-18 End-of-Grade test results were announced, the county discovered it had moved up from 45th to 17th out of all 115 districts in the state for third-grade reading proficiency. Cooleemee Elementary was singled out in those results for moving into the top 4 percent of all elementary schools in the state for academic growth.

This growing success in the district is being bolstered by a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation to improve kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency in the third grade. It’s called DavieLEADS, and it’s a five-year grant with a specific goal to get kindergarten readiness from 70 percent to 90 percent and reading proficiency in third grade from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2022.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest celebrates Cooleemee Elementary becoming one of the top four percent elementary schools in the state for academic growth. Courtesy of Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s Facebook page.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest celebrates Cooleemee Elementary becoming one of the top four percent elementary schools in the state for academic growth. Courtesy of Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s Facebook page.

That’s the big picture, but the changes happen on the ground, and walking around Cooleemee Elementary, you can feel the excitement buzzing in the hallways.

In the second year of the grant, Cooleemee is focused on guided reading. This combines writing, phonics, word-work, and other lessons together in specialized groups that focus on specific children and the reading levels they’re on. For instance, you may see a group of kids gathered at a table with a teacher, reading a specific book. That book will be one that is suitable to the reading level those children are on. The teacher will do a lesson with them, and then that group will be replaced with a different set of students reading a different book suitable for their specific reading level.

“It’s taking all the components children need to read — balanced literacy — and putting together the components,” said Cynthia Stone, the principal of the school.

The work this year follows on the foundation set last year when Cooleemee focused on Professional Learning Communities (PLC). That’s essentially where teachers can get together at the school to discuss the standards they’re working with in the classrooms and get a better grasp on how to teach to them. Kerry Blackwelder, a reading specialist who has been at Cooleemee for 23 years, said those PLCs were essential.

“Reading a standard and telling [teachers] what to do and having them do it is different than all of us coming together and talking about it and understanding it,” she said. “I’ve been a reading teacher for a long time, and I felt like I knew my standards. I didn’t know my standards like I should have. So I feel like I’m a better teacher because I understand what I need to ask my kids and do with my kids for them to understand that standard.”

Pre-K student at Cooleemee Elementary School in Davie County. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Pre-K student at Cooleemee Elementary School in Davie County. Liz Bell/EducationNC

 

The money from DavieLEADs includes funding for two literacy coaches and two professional consultants in the district. Those consultants were instrumental in helping lead PLCs last year, which put Cooleemee and other schools on a firm footing to focus on guided reading this year.

“When we were trying to run PLCs ourselves, we didn’t really have the training,” said Amy Stokes, another reading specialist at the school. “We made strides, but it’s been just so much more cohesive.”

She said the PLCs and the work under DavieLEADS has made a big difference because the staff of the school all feel like they have a common purpose.

“We’re following our standards, we’re all working together, and everyone is collaborating and working together to help our students grow,” she said.

Nancy Scoggin was one of the consultants who came in to work under the DavieLEADS grant. She was assigned Cooleemee, which she said was already ahead of the curve when she arrived. The grant lasts only five years, and after that the school will have to find a way to keep the gains they’ve made in that time. Scoggin said they are well positioned to do so because they have collaborated in such a way that teachers at every grade level have their fingers on the pulses of their students.

“When we talk about sustainability … every grade level is aware of what the next grade level is dealing with,” she said. “They use every single piece of data in this school that they possibly can. It’s not done with a ‘gotcha.’ It’s done with ‘let’s look at where we are. How do we need to arrange the schedule to use every single person in this building to get every inch of growth that we can?’”

One of the keys to knowing the kids is working with them in small groups during the guided reading sessions. Entering a classroom, you may see a teacher reading a sentence over and over again, substituting one word and asking the students if it makes sense.

Another tool you’ll see in classrooms is Letterland. This is a phonics-based program that aims to teach students aged 3 to 8 how to read, write, and spell. Letterland has characters based on different letters that live together in Letterland. Stories featuring the letter characters explain phonics to children in a way that’s more entertaining than your typical lesson, and thus sticks in the minds of students.

Letterland. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Letterland. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Of course, all of this reading and learning wouldn’t be possible without books, and Cooleemee has a lot, thanks in part to funds from the Mebane Foundation. About six years ago, Stone and others were building a book room in a small space at the school. Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, came over and asked how he could help.

Now the room is huge, with books for every conceivable reading level.

“The teacher can come and pull resources on that level specific to what the student needs,” Stone said.

Stone said that one of the things she appreciates most about DavieLEADS is flexibility. Colbourne is a familiar face around the school, and if teachers or leaders need an adjustment to how they use the money from the grant, they can talk directly to him and work it out. She also appreciates that the grant isn’t just about getting teachers new resources or lesson plans. It’s about showing them how to teach differently, and hopefully, more effectively.

“My teachers are getting skill sets,” Stone said. “They’re not just getting a material to consume.”

Editor’s Note: The Mebane Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.