In the Face of COVID, Hill Learning Center Invests in Making Reading Intervention More Accessible to Teachers and Students Across NC

By Jeanna Baxter White

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, and in-person learning came to a screeching halt, Hill Learning Center in Durham rose to the challenge and, in only three weeks, developed and released a version of its Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) that could be delivered remotely as long as the teacher and students had iPads and an internet connection. By summer, the HillRAP team had transformed its training model, which had required at least two days of in-person training, into a fully virtual professional learning experience. Previously, these efforts would have required many months, if not years, of planning, budgeting, testing, and refinement. But the need was urgent and real, and the experience inspired Hill to think and act more boldly than ever before. 

“There is little doubt or dispute that the inability to read can have devastating effects on life outcomes for students, or that as a nation, we are not fulfilling our moral and societal obligation to teach all students to read. Unfortunately, these realities have all been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Beth Anderson, executive director of Hill Learning Center. “To accelerate the reading development of students who have fallen even further behind due to COVID, quality, science-based core reading instruction must be supplemented by targeted, small-group intervention that can accurately identify and address foundational gaps.”

HillRAP leverages technology and quality professional development to deliver teacher-led, individualized, small-group instruction to students with persistent reading difficulties, including those with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning differences. Decades of research have shown that explicit phonics instruction benefits all early readers, particularly those who struggle to read. Hill’s instruction philosophy is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach, which focuses on teaching students the structure of language while incorporating precision teaching techniques including charting and graphing student progress. Using Hill assessments, an individualized instructional plan is created for each student. Progress is continually monitored as students work toward mastery of skills. (Watch this video to learn more.)

HillRAP Delivery Model Evolves to Increase Accessibility

Last year, even in the face of the pandemic, 555 educators were using HillRAP to serve nearly 5,600 students across North Carolina and beyond; 375 of those teachers and 3,500 of those students were in NC public and private schools outside of Hill School. However, many previous HillRAP users were unable to implement due to pandemic barriers related to technology, training, and time. Others wanted to adopt the program but simply didn’t have the iPads needed to do so. “We saw the need for HillRAP increasing and knew we had a tool and program that could seamlessly support both remote and in-person intervention, but we also knew we had to more radically evolve our delivery model to make it more accessible to any teacher serving any student, anywhere,” explained Anderson.

Thus, Hill set an ambitious goal to dramatically expand HillRAP’s reach to serve 26,000 students and 2,100 educators annually by 2024-25. To do so, they knew they would have to make significant additional investments in software development and improvements to online professional learning, data and analytics, and strategy, systems, and operations. First and foremost, as schools and districts everywhere expanded their investments in technology, and especially Chromebooks, Hill needed to migrate the HillRAP app from Apple iOS to a web-based platform that would be easy for teachers and students to use on any device.

The Mebane Foundation Supports Expansion

Such an ambitious undertaking carries a hefty price tag, so Anderson turned to supporters like the Mebane Foundation for financial assistance. Recognizing the value of the endeavor, the Foundation, a staunch supporter of Hill Learning Center for almost 20 years, made a $25,000 donation to help fund the development, joining other philanthropic funders who have collectively committed nearly $500,000 to this initiative.  

“In my opinion, Hill Learning Center has been the strongest organizational grantee we’ve supported since the Foundation began in 2003. However, while we have always recognized the extreme value Hill has to offer struggling readers and their families, the lack of access for those who couldn’t afford it has also been a sticking point for us,” said Mebane Foundation President Larry Colbourne. “With this investment, we are thrilled to support Hill’s efforts to expand the accessibility of HillRAP for both students and teachers. I believe exciting times are ahead for not just the organization, but for a much larger population of young struggling readers.”   

Photos courtesy of Hill Learning Center
Using her iPad, the HillRAP instructor is able to monitor each student’s progress.

The Time is Now

Hill and the Mebane Foundation have been partnering to help NC children succeed in reading since 2003 when the Foundation made a significant commitment to simultaneously launch two Hill programs in the Davie County school system and at 11 private preschools/daycares around the county. Over the years, the Foundation has made numerous contributions, including a transformative investment in 2015 toward the early development and deployment of the Hill Learning System (HLS), which has evolved into the HillRAP app. These investments, and those of many other donors, districts, and schools, have supported the expansion of HillRAP across NC and beyond – today, HillRAP is in use in 42 NC counties, 15 states, and 5 countries.

Nearly two decades into this work, Anderson sees the current landscape in NC as especially ripe for strategic growth with a web-based HillRAP. She reflects, “First of all, in the face of the pandemic, and despite all the challenges they were facing, we saw administrators and teachers with whom we already had a relationship turning to HillRAP as they developed plans for supporting students after the devastating disruptions of the 2020-21 school year.”

The most significant of these was KIPP North Carolina Public Schools, which had new leadership and was overhauling their approach to developing successful readers. According to Executive Director Tim Saintsing, “We are making a major investment in ensuring that every KIPP NC teacher is a reading teacher informed by the science of reading. When ESSER funds became available, we decided to bolster this effort by making a significant investment to hire and train a dedicated HillRAP interventionist in all 8 of our schools to expand consistent, quality intervention as much as possible to accelerate closing foundational reading gaps that had only been exacerbated by COVID.”

Web-Based HillRAP App Allows for Flexible Learning

Ashe County Literacy Specialist Lindsey Hagel has been happily using HillRAP since being certified in 2016, but it’s taken on even more importance since the pandemic. “I am thankful for HillRAP and the ability to use this program now more than ever. Teachers have done a fantastic job in navigating instruction throughout the pandemic, and being able to use this intensive intervention makes me feel like I am doing my part. I know I am giving my students the best instruction I can to help make up for COVID disruptions in their education. At a time when teachers are feeling especially challenged, overwhelmed, and weary, providing them with the training and tools they need to feel successful is more important than ever.”

KIPP was fortunate to already have iPads at each school that they could use for HillRAP, as were HillRAP teachers in Ashe and Edgecombe counties, thanks to the generosity of donors. Yet they struggle to use HillRAP with students who don’t have iPads at home, something KIPP is wrestling with right now as they shifted to remote learning for a few weeks in the face of the COVID omicron surge.

Hagel noted, “The web-based app is going to be a very valuable tool if our school system has to go to remote learning again. We will be able to continue with our routine and not lose as much instructional time.”

Longtime Edgecombe County Public Schools HillRAP teacher and mentor Lisa Oakley expressed a similar sentiment, “This investment affords the teachers and students an opportunity to use Chromebooks that are issued to each scholar countywide. We are no longer restricted by the limited number of iPads within each school!  Having a web-based version also allows us to move more seamlessly into remote learning when needed.”

Carteret County Public Schools reading specialist Jodi Allen has five iPads that were issued by her school district for the implementation of HillRAP. She pointed out that when these iPads become outdated, there is no guarantee that they will be replaced. “The web-based version of the program will allow students to access the lesson on their school-issued device whether it is an iPad or a Chromebook. It will also save time and keep students safe because multiple students are not sharing the same device, which limits the spread of germs and eliminates the time a teacher needs to sanitize devices between lessons.”

More critically, many NC school districts do not have iPads or support Apple products. Anderson explained that school systems in places like Randolph County and Davidson County have continued to train teachers in HillRAP, using the original paper-based intervention, but are eager to migrate to the web-based app and train even more teachers as soon as possible. Once the web-based app is available, they will be able to make the switch, offering their teachers greater efficiency with the most up-to-date content, data, and resources at their fingertips, while administrators will have greater insight into implementation fidelity and growth of students and the impact of their investment.

HillRAP Partners With Districts to Ensure Reading Success

Beyond those teachers, schools, and districts already using HillRAP, Anderson sees new opportunities for a more accessible HillRAP to play a critical role in the statewide movement towards aligning instruction and teacher knowledge with the science of reading. “The NC legislature and NC DPI are to be lauded for their efforts in amending Read to Achieve last year and seeking to train teachers and establish the foundation for strong core reading instruction that should meet the needs of most elementary students. However, these efforts will not address the instructional needs of students with persistent reading difficulties, including those in older grades with foundational gaps. For those students, more intensive, targeted intervention is required to close deficits, learn to mastery, and develop the reading confidence and success that can be life-changing.”

KIPP’s Saintsing refers to their HillRAP partnership with Hill as “AWESOME” and “IMPORTANT.” He hopes that when the ESSER funding expires in three years, they will have closed many gaps for individual students, reduced the need for intensive intervention across their schools, and built the capacity for long-term sustainability that the web-based app and investments in teacher training and support should help facilitate. “While it’s too early to evaluate success, the teachers and students are engaged and learning and the support from Hill has been phenomenal.”

Anderson sums up what motivates Hill to keep seeking to grow its place in the NC educational ecosystem: “As the state invests millions of dollars in improving teacher knowledge and core reading instruction, we must continue to invest, innovate, and expand HillRAP to help ensure the most marginalized, struggling students in North Carolina schools – large and small; rural and urban; virtual and in-person; district, charter, private, and home – do not fail to reach their potential because they cannot read. Thanks to the investments of the Mebane Foundation and many others, Hill is moving aggressively to release the web-based HillRAP app with enhanced training, resources, data, and supports in July 2022, moving us one giant step closer to our goal of helping thousands more teachers and students who are struggling to experience reading success.”

Edgecombe County Schools Invests in HillRAP to Address Foundational Reading Gaps

By Jeanna Baxter White

Photo Courtesy of Edgecombe County Public Schools 
Coker-Wimberly Elementary hosted a Family Literacy Night where parents got to participate in a HillRAP lesson alongside their children.

Studies show that reading skills are the foundation of all education. Success in school, the workplace, and life is dramatically enhanced for children who can read at or above grade level by the end of the 3rd grade.

Given the projected learning loss experienced by many students due to school closures, remote learning, and inconsistent attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for intensive, gap-closing reading intervention is more urgent than ever.

Edgecombe County Schools Initiate HillRAP Expansion

In response, Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS), in eastern North Carolina, is expanding and strengthening the availability of HillRAP (Hill Reading Achievement Program) for its elementary and middle school students with persistent reading challenges through a three-year scale-up of HillRAP tutoring. ECPS began implementing HillRAP in 2014, targeting 3rd-5th grade students who struggled in their End-of-Grade tests. Based on its success, the program was extended to include students in 1st through 8th grades who would benefit from intensive reading support.

Through this new initiative, six dedicated HillRAP tutors are currently serving 150 students who have significant foundational reading gaps but would not otherwise be able to receive the intervention. ECPS plans to expand this project to nine tutors teaching 180 students next school year and 12 tutors reaching 240 students in 2023-24. These tutors complement the ECPS teachers who are HillRAP-trained and deliver the program in their schools to an estimated 100 additional students as their schedules allow.

Students & Educators Meet Challenges Together

Many of the HillRAP tutors are retired ECPS teachers whom the district has specifically targeted for this initiative. Three of six in year one have previous HillRAP training and experience, including one who is a  Hill-certified Level 2 Mentor. Without this opportunity, these veteran teachers would most likely no longer be serving ECPS students and schools.

Developed by Hill Learning Center in Durham, HillRAP leverages technology and quality professional development to deliver teacher-led, individualized, small group instruction to students with persistent reading difficulties, including those with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning differences. Decades of research have shown that explicit phonics instruction benefits all early readers, but particularly those who struggle to read.

Hill’s instruction philosophy is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach which focuses on teaching students the structure of language while incorporating precision teaching techniques including charting and graphing student progress. Using Hill assessments, an individualized instructional plan is created for each student. Progress is continually monitored as students work toward mastery of skills.

Funds are Invested in Student Success

When ECPS reached out about the possibility of leveraging their ESSER (federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding to expand HillRAP to serve more students, Hill Learning Center was immediately on board. “Knowing how overwhelmed teachers and administrators were going to be addressing learning loss and foundational reading gaps while still navigating through a pandemic, we saw the potential impact dedicated HillRAP tutors could have by providing additional high quality, dedicated capacity,” said Beth Anderson, Hill’s executive director. “After years of working together, it is gratifying to see the teacher and tutor leadership that has taken hold – from hosting a Family Literacy Night where parents participated in a HillRAP lesson with their children to active engagement in structured mentoring and peer learning. We are optimistic that by the end of this project, many, many more students will have made meaningful gains in reading”

ESSER and Robert E. and Dorothy Z. Barnhill Family Fund

An initiative of this magnitude required a sizable investment in both philanthropic and federal funds. Hill and ECPS launched the project with $250,000 of the school system’s ESSER funds and $30,000 in previously committed funds from the Robert E. and Dorothy Z. Barnhill Family Fund, which has been supporting the deployment of HillRAP in ECPS since 2014. 

To help the school system secure the final $250,000 needed to fully execute the program, the Barnhill Family Foundation went a step further, issuing an all-or-nothing match challenge of 50% of the remaining revenue gap. 

“As a Foundation, we had read so much about the importance of being able to read by third grade and the doors it opens for kids to thrive, and really wanted to address that situation,” said Erin Brewer, executive director of corporate and community outreach for the Barnhill Contracting Company. “When we were introduced to the Hill Learning Center and saw how well their small-group interventions worked for kids who were struggling to read and desperately needed to get caught up, we wanted to help implement the program in Edgecombe County Public Schools. 

She explained that this latest three-year grant is a result of the ever-increasing need caused by the pandemic. 

“We have been thrilled with the results we’ve seen and advocate for Hill all of the time. We issued this grant challenge because we wanted Hill Learning Center to be on the map with other funders and we wanted other funders to experience what we are doing. We already know that it has started conversations outside of Edgecombe County.” 

The Mebane Foundation

The Mebane Foundation of Mocksville was quick to answer the call, promising $50,000 over the next two years based on the project’s strong alignment with its mission and an enduring friendship between Founder Allen Mebane and Barnhill Family Foundation Founder, Robert E. Barnhill Jr. (Bob). 

“Allen and Bob were leaders in their respective industries and were very good friends for a long time,” explained Mebane Foundation President Larry Colbourne. “While Bob is still very active in the world of philanthropy, Allen’s foresight to create The Foundation is allowing his legacy to live on and is enabling him to join forces with his very dear friend even today. I know he’d be proud of Bob for making the initial challenge, as that was Allen’s way of ensuring everybody had “skin in the game”, thus, affording more children the opportunity to succeed in life!”  

The Anonymous Trust also responded to the challenge with a two-year, $100,000 investment.

Photo Courtesy of Hill Learning Center
HillRAP leverages technology and quality professional development to deliver teacher-led, individualized, small group instruction to students with persistent reading difficulties. 

Grant Funds Provide Training, Technology & Materials

The grant funds are being used to hire, train, coach, and support HillRAP tutors; train district and school administrators to recognize and support quality implementation; provide project coordination support within both Hill and ECPS; and purchase iPads, HillRAP app subscriptions, and supplemental materials.

HillRAP tutors and teachers will also participate in 4, 90-minute professional learning community (PLC) sessions during the school year. These sessions, facilitated by a retired ECPS HillRAP teacher who is also a certified Hill Master Mentor, provide an opportunity for HillRAP tutors and teachers to reflect on student data, ask questions, share resources, and build their collective capacity for strong implementation.

The tutors began implementing HillRAP with groups of 4 students, 4-5 days per week in October, after beginning of year testing. These sessions will continue through April, up until the end of year testing in May. The goal is to provide at least 90 HillRAP sessions per group. The success of the initiative will be measured based on both implementation data (# of students, average # and length of HillRAP sessions) and student growth data, using the new, state-mandated mClass DIBELS 8 data.

Zina Pittman, a retired HillRAP master mentor, and current tutor is an ardent proponent of what HillRAP means to both students and teachers. “I received my initial HillRAP training at a point in my career, where after 23 years of teaching I was beginning to feel “burned-out.” I was looking for another “breath of fresh air” and along came Hill.  I can truly say that I was given the spark, the assurance, and the support needed to complete intensive training, to broaden my knowledge of the science of reading, and to discover tools that I didn’t realize I had as a reading teacher.”  

Photo Courtesy of Hill Learning Center
Zina Pittman, Hill master mentor and HillRAP tutor with Edgecombe County Schools, leads students through a HillRAP session. 

Closing Foundational Gaps in Literacy

All of the educators involved with the project are thrilled to be able to provide this powerful intervention to many more of the ECPS students who need it most.  

“As the District’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) Coordinator, I was thrilled to learn that we would be expanding and strengthening the implementation of HillRAP,” said Lois Glass, ECPS HillRAP coordinator and  MTSS coordinator. “As I work with schools within the district, they commonly note the need for well-defined, evidence-based, efficient, and effective interventions to help close foundational gaps in literacy.  HillRAP is exactly what we need to help us accomplish this goal. HillRAP is assisting us as we reimagine the future of our scholars.” 

“It is both an honor and a pleasure to serve as a HillRAP teacher in ECPS,” said Stocks Elementary School HillRAP teacher and mentor Lisa Oakley. “This wonderful program provides our scholars with an opportunity to build the foundation needed in order to become more proficient readers. It is so rewarding to watch as my scholars begin to unlock the mystery of reading words. They are working every day to be the BEST readers they can be!”       

Wayne Barlow, a HillRAP tutor at Stocks Elementary School, added, “As a retired educator, I have never used a program that is comparable to HillRAP. As a tutor using this program, teaching a small group at different levels is amazing. Differentiated instruction can be achieved. Students are engaged at all times. The program gives instant data for tracking and monitoring your students. It is a great digital program for intervention that includes all the skills needed for a student to succeed. I recommend HillRAP for anyone working with struggling readers. ‘Learning Does Happen on the Hill.’”   

HillRAP Students Say “Thanks”

However, the most poignant expressions of the ability HillRAP has to change students’ lives come from the students themselves: 

  • “HillRAP helps me with my attitude. Now I don’t get so upset when I don’t know a word, I know I can fix it.” –  Marian S.
  • “HillRAP is fun! I like saying, ‘I can, I will, I am and I did!’ when I do my timed test.” – Zachary J.
  • “HillRAP helps me to learn to spell words.” – QuanZi K.
  • “It helps me to read books with some words that I don’t know. I feel happy when I learn more words.” –      Dakota P.
  • “HillRAP is about having fun and reading at the same time.” – Grayson P.
  • “HillRAPmakes me glad when I say words right that I have said wrong before. It makes my heart happy!” –     Terrance M.

“I can not thank our generous funders enough for the wonderful opportunity at a new lease on life!” exclaimed  Pittman. “None of the success I feel that I am having nor the impact that I hope I am making in the lives of my scholars would be possible without you! Again, thank you for your thoughtfulness and generosity! I hope that you, too, will be “Forever Hill!”

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