HillRAP: Direct, individualized literacy instruction to help struggling students succeed

Watsie and Will perform a fluency test as part of the HillRAP program at the Hill Center. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

“On your mark, get set, go!”

Will, an eager, confident second-grader, reads the words in front of him as fast as he can.

“Oh man, not quite,” his teacher, Anita Shore, tells him. “Tomorrow, okay?” she asks. “That word is brick. Are you good to do it again tomorrow, Will?”

Disappointed, he hangs his head.

“Want to try one more time?” Shore asks.

Will nods eagerly and gets ready to read his word list again. On his second try, he reads them faster and with more confidence, reaching his goal.

“Oh yeah, that’s how you do it!” Shore says. “Good job!”

Will is a student at the Hill Center, an educational nonprofit in Durham serving K-12 students who struggle academically. The Hill Center was founded in 1977 by George Watts Hill. Originally part of Durham Academy, the Hill Center became its own nonprofit in 1998. Today, the Hill Center runs its own school and summer camp, provides teacher training and tutoring, and works with North Carolina school districts.

The Hill Center specializes in teaching students with learning differences, but their programs are used to provide remediation and differentiated support for students across the state. They recently received funding through the state’s Read to Achieve program and the Mebane Foundation to train 400 educators in their reading program, the Hill Reading Achievement Program or HillRAP. In June, I had the chance to visit the Hill Center and learn more about HillRAP.


Anita Shore assessing her students’ fluency at the Hill Center. Molly Osborne/EducationNC


As Will moves to his reading comprehension work, Shore turns to the student next to Will.

“Alright, Martha, you ready?” Shore asks.

Martha reads through her list of words as fast as she can, only stumbling on a few of them.

“Very good!” Shore exclaims. “You reached your goal. You jumped from 64 to 72. That’s awesome on a review day!”

Shore is assessing the students on fluency with an activity they call “word attack.” Each student has a list of words that follow a certain rule. The students review the words with Shore and practice reading them until they can read the words fast enough and with enough accuracy to reach their goal. Depending on the students’ reading level, the lists start with identifying letters and sounds and progress up to multisyllable words.

After the students review their words, Shore gives them a test to see how many they can read accurately in a certain amount of time. If they reach their goal, they get to color in the number of words they read on a graph on their iPad, a way to visually track their progress.

Will colors in a graph representing the number of words he read accurately. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

HillRAP doesn’t just focus on fluency. Students also practice phonics and phonological awareness, vocabulary, spelling, and reading comprehension skills. These areas are integrated, so students see the same words during word attack as they do during spelling, vocabulary, and comprehension.

HillRAP is also highly individualized. Each student is on a different level, and working in a small group allows the teacher the ability to differentiate instruction. It is mastery-based, so students do not move on until they have achieved mastery.

“You saw the level of explicit direct instruction,” Beth Anderson, Executive Director of the Hill Center, pointed out, “and that is what the students really need and that is what doesn’t happen too often in general classrooms.”

Because HillRAP is so individualized and requires direct instruction, the program cannot be used for a whole group. Teachers must work with students one-on-one or in a small group, which means teachers and schools must intentionally schedule time to implement the program.

Krista Jones, a former Orange County special education teacher and current HillRAP trainer, used the program during an intervention block at her school. At some schools, literacy interventionists or reading teachers will pull groups to do HillRAP, while at others, classroom teachers will administer HillRAP during stations. Often, however, those teachers have a teacher’s aide or assistant who can help, Jones said.

Martha and Will attend the Hill Center half the day and then return to their normal elementary schools. However, the majority of students receiving instruction in HillRAP are in North Carolina public schools.

The map below details the districts across the state that are using HillRAP as of June 2018. The colors represent whether the districts have access to the iPad version (green) or are using the paper version (blue). The orange represents districts that have a mix of technology and paper versions.

A map of districts implementing HillRAP, color-coded according to technology. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Anderson is excited about the move from paper to iPads, although some veteran teachers were highly skeptical at first, she said.

“There are two things that really help the teachers. One is it cuts down significantly on the prep time for them and on the time managing the program in the class so they can really focus on instruction and get through more content,” Anderson said.

“The other thing that it does is it gives all of the data right there at their finger tips … You can log into a portal online that has reports and all kinds of things. In the public schools, we hear they are using these reports for IEP meetings, for setting and tracking goals, and for showing progress to parents and other teachers.”

The move online has also helped the Hill Center track where and when their program is being used. They can tell how long teachers and students are using the program, which allows them to better understand the data and provide coaching.

Additionally, the online version allows for the alignment between the different sections — fluency, vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension. With the paper and pencil version, teachers do not have access to texts that are aligned with the fluency, vocabulary, and spelling sections.

Will works on the comprehension component. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

An example of the vocabulary component. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Students can draw on the iPad to group words or letters. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Currently, the Hill Center is training about 1,000 teachers a year. Not all of those are trained in HillRAP — they also train teachers in their programs HillMath and HillWrite. With the new funding, they will train approximately 400 literacy trainers from every district as well as roughly 23 charter schools.

Anderson stated, “[The literacy trainers] have been designated by DPI and by their districts as their literacy expert, so we are training them in HillRAP so that they understand what a high quality individualized Tier 3 intervention looks like.”

The funding does not mean that those trainers will go back and implement HillRAP in every school. As Anderson described, “They hopefully can learn those strategies and use those strategies as they are coaching and teaching and leading and developing their own district’s approach to support for struggling readers and literacy instruction.”

According to Anderson, the cost for the full certification, which includes training and observations, is around $3,000 per teacher. While the cost can be a barrier to participation for some districts, Anderson believes their program is competitively priced. Teachers come out of the training with a certification through the Hill Center and the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council.

As they roll out the online version, they will also charge a $250 licensing fee per teacher for the first time. “This has been all funded through philanthropy for the most part,” Anderson said. “We really need to find a way to get some earned revenue…[The fee] includes the app. It includes all of the comprehension texts, vocabulary, all of the data and reporting, access to the online portal that has online courses, resources, and a video observation tool. It’s the complete package.”

Anderson is optimistic that the demand will remain even after instituting a licensing fee because teachers and districts see the value in the program.

“The teachers love the program,” she said. “The teachers also love the mentorship and professional development.”





Mebane Foundation, Unifi and Hill Center Team Up to Change Lives in Yadkin County!

By Jeanna B. White

Thanks to a unique partnership between the Mebane Charitable Foundation, Unifi, and the Hill Center, students in Yadkin County Schools’ Exceptional Children’s program, are getting the extra reading help they need.

The Mebane Charitable Foundation has approved a $70,000 grant and Unifi is contributing an additional $30,000 to Yadkin County Schools to provide the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP), a research-based multisensory structured language approach to teaching reading developed by the Hill Center of Durham.

Through this two-year partnership, Hill will provide comprehensive training to all 18 of the county’s K-6 EC teachers in delivering HillRAP with the technology-enabled Hill Learning System (HLS). This new format uses handheld devices rather than the traditional paper-based intervention, allowing teachers more flexibility in interacting with students in the 4-to-1 setting. The grants also cover the cost of 90 iPads and additional training to certify two HillRAP mentors in the second year to build sustainability within the district. The first nine teachers completed training in September 2017 and the others will complete their training during the 2018-2019 school year.

“A partnership with Yadkin County Schools and Unifi was seen as a very attractive opportunity to the Mebane Foundation,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. “One of our goals coming out of our board retreat just over a year ago was to engage with new school systems and additional funding partners. With these two we’ve hit a home run; Unifi is basically Mr. Mebane’s brainchild from the early 70’s and much of the personal wealth he created during his lifetime spawned from there and then eventually passed into the Foundation.”

“It’s probably safe to say that children of Unifi employees will benefit directly from this partnership,” he added. “This was truly a win-win, and I have the utmost confidence that the Yadkin School leadership team and their teachers will ensure students will be offered every opportunity to succeed.”

Through HillRAP, a specially-trained teacher guides groups of up to four students through exercises in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each student has an individualized curriculum to provide instruction where it is needed most. Small units of information are presented sequentially and practiced daily until a set criterion is met for three to five consecutive days and overlearning is achieved. Mastered skills are reviewed weekly to ensure retention. Classes are designed to maximize opportunities for oral and written student responses. The program allows, and encourages, students and teachers, to set goals, track daily progress, and celebrate successes.

“Our schedule in the elementary school revolves around grade level pull-out times,” said Debby Gunnell, an EC (exceptional children) teacher at Yadkinville Elementary and the first to be trained. She participated in training in June 2017 to support HillRAP implementation in the summer Read to Achieve camp. “Since I typically have students reading on various grade levels during one pull-out time, reading instruction in the past frequently involved rotating reading groups within a class period. With HillRAP, I am able to teach up to four students on four different reading levels at one time!”

“This program is fast-paced, highly engaging, and provides a high degree of time-on-task. Each student is able to practice reading skills the entire time on his/her own instructional reading level,” she added.

“My students enjoy learning to read on the iPads and often display disappointment when they realize our time together has expired. I am excited about HillRAP and the impact the program will have on reading skills as shown on assessments given throughout the year.”

Kristi Gaddis, Director of Student Services, Yadkin County Schools, is equally excited. “We are elated to have this research-based instruction made available to our students. What makes this stand out from all the other instructional techniques is the seamless merging of research-based reading and technology. Our teachers are able to instruct students on their individual levels all at the same time through the use of the app. The exceptional students of Yadkin County Schools are receiving the best reading instruction available!”

Developed by Hill over the past two years, HLS includes enhanced data collection, analysis, and reporting tools which helps educators and districts make informed instructional decisions. Beta-tested by 60 teachers at Hill and select public schools in 2015-16, HLS is yielding promising results for student growth including:

  • 1.5 years’ average growth on NC EOGs for Carteret County students receiving HillRAP via HLS
  • Success integrating HillRAP into kindergarten classroom literacy time to serve more students and close foundational gaps
  • More engaged, confident, and invested teachers and students

Gaddis is eager to see Yadkin County experience similar results. “Yadkin County Schools is looking forward to analyzing the growth rate of our students that engaged in the Hill RAP reading intervention program this school year. We have trained the teachers, conducted coaching visits to provide support, and eliminated barriers to implementation. Our next step in the roll-out of this initiative is to analyze the data for student growth rates through the comparison of MClass improvements and CORE reading assessment improvements from 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.”

“Yadkin County Schools is so grateful that the Mebane Foundation has agreed to invest in our students. The foundation is providing the means for us to build capacity, inspect what we expect, and sustain what we start. Through our partnership we will improve the lives of Yadkin County citizens by ensuring they are prepared for the transition from school to life,” Gaddis said.

Book Harvest’s Book Babies: Unleashing parent leadership at birth could lead to a lifetime of benefits

Note:  This article, by Mebane Rash, was originally published 11/22/2017 on Education NC (EdNC -Book Harvest’s Book Babies: Unleashing parent leadership at birth could lead to a lifetime of benefits ) and is republished below with permission.

“Not all kids go to sleep at night with a bedtime story,” says Ginger Young, the founder and executive director of Book Harvest in Durham, when Larry Colbourne of the Mebane Foundation and I visited her earlier this year. “And yet literacy begins with language.”

Young is imagining a new normal for newborns in Durham — and across our state and nation. It starts, she tells us, by unleashing parent leadership from birth. Both Young and Colbourne agree there is a “colossal failure” in our society between birth and grade three when so much of the brain develops, and both are investing in “coherent community strategies” to support these kids during this span of their lives.

Book Harvest started in Young’s garage back in 2011 where she collected donated books, premised on her belief in “the power of books to transform children’s lives.”

It begins with raising awareness so here is the pop quiz Young gives us:

Please fill in the two columns:

What percent of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of life?

Summer learning loss accounts for what percent of the income-based achievement gap?

What percent of a child’s life between the ages of 0 and 18 is spent in school?

What percent of our population are our children? What percent of our future are our children?

The answer to that last question is 100 percent. But income-based achievement gaps hold back too many of our children.

What if there was a way, wondered Young, to get any Medicaid-eligible baby kindergarten ready for $5,000? Book Harvest has several programs to promote literacy, but our visit focused on Book Babies.

Here is the basic idea:

Over five years, 120 new books + at least 12 home visits + a robust array of additional supports = a million words per year if a parent reads to their child for 15 minutes every day = kindergarten readiness

Book Babies is premised on this narrative: 1) you, the parents, are the experts; 2) we are here to support you on your journey; 3) your baby is capable of greatness; and 4) together we can make sure your child is kindergarten ready.

On the left, Meytal Barak, the team leader for Book Babies, talks to Manju Rajendran, a mother in the program who has a 17-month-old, Azadi. “Our kiddo,” Rajendran says, “she just got into it.” On the right, Young embraces the young mother.

Young tells us, “Authentic relationships. Trust. Showing up. Deep respect. It matters.”

Colbourne and I are both invited to go on a home visit. I visited this mom, Karen, her 2½-year-old Kayla and her 4-year-old brother Matthew. The mother does not have transportation so she is home bound during the day. Demonstrating the innate resourcefulness of parents, she covered an old pack-n-play to create a reading zone for Kayla. Barak’s excitement about this “micro-moment of brilliance” is palpable, confirming her belief that parents are the very best teachers for their children.

The Book Harvest staff is tenacious when it comes to making sure the home visits happen. They have a whole toolbox of ways to get them scheduled: text, phone, an alternate phone, email, driving by the home, and as a last resort the family’s pediatrician. They make the home visits happen on the family’s schedule not theirs, which often means they happen at night or on the weekends. This video unpacks the elements of each home visit:

Evaluations of the Book Babies program look promising. As excerpted from a report by Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy:

“…Book Babies children show advanced knowledge of emergent literacy skills such as print knowledge and phonological awareness. This finding demonstrates that the Book Babies program is successfully targeting the key early literacy skills…. Exposure to these skills is critical for kindergarten readiness, later reading ability, and future academic success. … The findings of this evaluation are both encouraging and exciting, as they indicate that the Book Babies intervention has unique potential to positively impact the literacy skills of Durham’s youngest children.”

The Center for Child and Family Policy is conducting a randomized control trial on cohorts of 180+ babies in 2017 and 2018 over five years to evaluate the Book Babies interventions and, if warranted, establish the evidence-base necessary to scale the program across North Carolina and beyond.

This Thanksgiving, engage a child in your life using the goals of Book Babies:

as you read, name objects, actions, and emotions;

let the child hold the book and turn the pages;

sit close to the child;

use an animated voice and expressions to engage and interest the child;

ask simple questions;

make everyday connections;

AND instead of screen time, have a conversation and play games with the child.

Perhaps you will enjoy it as much as the Book Babies parents:

“Each time, you teach me something different that motivates me more.”

“This program is something very beautiful.”

“I am very thankful, this has helped me a lot with my children.”

Young reminds us, “the stories we read to our children become their stories — touchstones that help children shape their identity and their sense of their place in a complicated world.”