The Results Are In! Davie County Schools Completes Five-Year DavieLEADS Initiative 

By Jeanna Baxter White

In 2017, The Mebane Charitable Foundation and Davie County Schools embarked on a five-year initiative to “move the needle” in early childhood education. Supported by almost $2.5 million from the Foundation, DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed) was designed to improve kindergarten readiness to 90% and increase reading proficiency in 3rd grade to 80% by 2022.  In September, representatives from Davie County Schools summarized the results for the Foundation’s Board of Directors. 

Foundation President Larry Colbourne expressed his gratitude for the hard work of every person involved with the DavieLEADS initiative. “Any large five-year, multi-year financial commitment to a school system can be challenging for both the funder and the grantee. However, the strength of the Foundation’s relationship with the Davie County School leadership team and the hundreds of employees in this county has made this initiative a success, even in the face of what many would consider insurmountable odds.

Although our ambitious goals weren’t quite met, with COVID hitting in 2020, combined with all the other changes and variables thrown its’ way since 2017, the Foundation couldn’t be more proud of what was accomplished and all the hard work put forth by DCS leadership. Even more impressive has been the resilience of our great teachers! We look forward to seeing Davie County Schools continue to succeed and be a leader in our state.”

Davie County Schools’ final report can be found here: 

An in-depth look at various aspects of the initiative over the past five years can be found on our website’s news page HERE.

Davie County Schools One of Three Districts Selected to Living LETRS Panel

Megan Cooper spends a couple hours each week working on LETRS assignments.
Megan Cooper spends a couple hours each week working on LETRS assignments.

By Jeanna Baxter White

Davie County Schools was one of only three districts selected to a panel for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training in NC. The Office of Early Learning (NCDPI) and three school districts came together virtually to present experiences with LETRS. Other districts on the panel included Columbus County and Union County. 

As part of this panel, teachers Megan Cooper and Leigh Ann Davis, and Renee Hennings-Gonzalez, an instructional coach for the district, shared best practices and successes of LETRS training for DCS teachers and staff. At one point, nearly 600 people had joined the virtual session. LETRS, which is being used statewide, takes research on how children learn to read and creates teaching strategies for elementary educators. 

LETRS is a component of legislation passed in April 2021 mandating that literacy instruction be based on a body of research called the science of reading. The goal is to ensure that children develop the skills and techniques needed to become successful readers through proven, evidence-based practices.

Decades of research on literacy instruction have revealed how the brain learns to read and the instructional methods that support this process. Learning to read is incredibly complex, so teaching reading requires a deep understanding of the science behind how we learn to read, why we spell the way we do, and how phonemic awareness and phonics lead to comprehension.

LETRS® Training, developed by Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Carol Tolman, was designed to strengthen teachers’ knowledge of language structure, the development of the reading brain, and how to nurture the development of foundational literacy skills such as decoding and language comprehension.

It’s an intensive program involving 160 hours over two years of learning about the brain and the building blocks of language. And it was rolled out while teachers were already focused on balancing the demands of catching children up academically following remote learning, navigating shifting COVID protocols, tracking missing students, and paying close attention to the kids’ mental state, while also finding time to wipe down surfaces and help with mask fitting.

Davie County Schools began LETRS last August as part of the second cohort. (Full statewide implementation isn’t expected until the 2024-2025 school year.) 

Strong support from the district and prior training about the Science of Reading through DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed) paved the way for Davie County’s successful implementation of LETRS training. Implemented during 2017-2018, DavieLEADS is an early learning and literacy initiative funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation to increase kindergarten readiness and to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade through building capacity in staff, strengthening instructional strategies, and updating materials aligned with state standards K-3. 

Hennings-Gonzalez explained that over the course of the DavieLEADS grant, teachers have received training, resources, coaching, and support in concepts based on the Science of Reading research. Components of programs and instruction such as Heggerty, Letterland, and decodable small flexible group reading lessons have addressed Science of Reading research.  

Teachers Megan Cooper (first grade) and Leigh Ann Davis (fourth grade), and Renee Hennings-Gonzalez, an instructional coach for the district, shared best practices and successes of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training for DCS teachers and staff during a virtual state-wide LETRS training.
Teachers Megan Cooper (first grade) and Leigh Ann Davis (fourth grade), and Renee Hennings-Gonzalez, an instructional coach for the district, shared best practices and successes of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training for DCS teachers and staff during a virtual state-wide LETRS training.

“The training we received through DavieLEADS has definitely been helpful and opened the door to the LETRS training,” agreed Cooper, a first-grade teacher at Shady Grove Elementary. She shared that teachers received both Reading Research to Classroom Practice and decodable lesson plan training before the LETRS training mandate. “I feel that DavieLEADS, along with our curriculum department, have prepared Davie County teachers and helped us keep up with the ever-changing requirements for the research behind reading.” 

During the panel, Cooper and Davis offered encouragement and tips on carving out time to complete the lessons.  

Cooper detailed how she sets time aside each week to work on the different assignments. Preferring to work in smaller sessions rather than sitting down and doing it all on workdays, she takes 30-45 minutes twice a week after school to work on lessons and utilizes her duty-free lunch period and some of her planning time to work on LETRS. “I know teachers don’t want to give up their planning time but once they realize that they can use this program within their lessons and to benefit their interventional instruction, it becomes a natural process to reference the LETRS program when looking at what students need.” 

She schedules check-in meetings with her instructional coach and each grade level discusses LETRS once a month during PLCs. As an added help, the district curriculum department created a pacing guide for the units to help teachers ensure they have them completed, and the district provided optional workdays and a half-day with a paid sub for teachers to work on LETRS. “Davie County has truly supported its teachers and given us the time to work on this crucial program.”

Davis, a 4th-grade teacher at Pinebrook Elementary,  agreed that while time-consuming, the training is worth it. “The information I have learned through LETRS has been interesting and has given me insight into the reasons why students can struggle in reading.  There are many different components of the reading process and the students’ needs are diverse.”

“It has been helpful to recognize some of the reasons why some kids struggle with reading.  By the time students reach 4th grade, it often appears that reading trouble is in comprehension.  LETRS has reiterated to me that what may appear to be a comprehension difficulty might truly be a phonemic or phonological awareness issue. LETRS has made me more confident in our school’s decision to include programs to support these areas of weakness in the upper elementary grades. We noticed that some students needed more instruction in these two areas, and included intervention programs such as Letterland, HillRAP, and Sonday.  It has been encouraging to see students grow in their reading because of the interventions we have put in place.”

Hennings-Gonzalez summed it up this way, “Moving ahead, LETRS will help deepen teachers’ understanding of best practices to support students’ reading, spelling, writing, and comprehension needs. DavieLEADS provided teachers with the resources needed to reach students as readers, while LETRS will continue to build teachers’ knowledge base on the “why” and research behind the use of programs, curriculum, and best practices in reading instruction.”

Moving the Needle: Davie County Schools Recognizes Mebane Foundation for Contributions in Early Literacy through DavieLEADS 

By Jeanna Baxter White

(L to R) Nancy Scoggin, Barbie Brown, Amy Spade, Jennifer Lynde,  Larry Colbourne, Renee Hennings-Gonzalez, Jeanna White, Stephanie Nelson, Susan Domanski, and Peggy Nuckolls. 

The Mebane Foundation was honored to be recognized at the Davie County Board of Education meeting on March 1st for its role in supporting early childhood education in Davie County, as DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed) comes to an end. The early learning and literacy initiative was funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Foundation. Established during the 2017-2018 school year, DavieLEADS has had two primary goals. The first is to increase kindergarten readiness to 90 percent by reaching and fostering the development of children at an early age (birth to kindergarten) through consistent curriculum, instruction, and experiences in preschool programs. The second goal is to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade to 80 percent by building capacity in staff, strengthening instructional strategies, and updating materials aligned with state standards K-3. Following are a few of the remarks and a thank you video created by Davie County Schools staff. 

A little over five years ago, Larry Colbourne and the Mebane Board challenged Davie County Schools to figure out what would move the needle in early literacy in Davie County Schools. Assistant Superintendent Jinda Haynes organized a series of round-table discussions between community leaders and educators who spent many hours discussing, looking at data, and collaborating about what would truly make a difference. The answer? Investing in people. 

(L to R) Jennifer Lynde, Jinda Haynes, and Peggy Nuckolls were recognized by Davie County Schools for leading the DavieLEADS initiative. 

“What it came down to was that there was no silver bullet, no magical quick fix of a program that we could buy or any piece of technology that would make a big difference,” said Jennifer Lynde, chief academic officer for DCS, during the presentation. “Instead we needed to invest in our people, our school administrators, our teachers, and our assistants, to build their capacity to teach literacy and build a strong reading foundation for our Pre-K through third-grade students. No matter what programs we were using, and no matter what state initiative we had at the time or the required assessments, we found the absolute value of coaching, not just providing professional development one-shot deals, but the importance of the follow-up conversations with support, resources, and modeling with individual staff members,  . . . and small groups. We now have more consistency than ever in our literacy practices across our Pre-K programs and our elementary schools that allows for ongoing professional development, PLC conversations, collaboration within and outside of individual schools, across grade levels, and across school buildings including private Pre-K sites and our Davie County public Pre-K sites.” 

Most importantly, the work we have done over the past five years is sustainable. . .  What makes DavieLEADS different is the majority of the funds invested were invested in people. Yes, we were able to purchase and build fidelity with programs like Letterland, HillRAP, and Heggerty, which are amazing, and build our students’ learning, But as we all know, programs change, they come and they go. It’s our teachers’ ability to teach the foundational components that we built upon no matter the program that is in place, that will be sustained.  We truly believe that the work we built through DavieLEADS will continue for many years to come. 

Lastly, there is trust. We have to emphasize this word because the partnership we have with the Mebane Foundation is built on trust. It is a very unique partnership. Sometimes we receive grants, and it honestly can be about the agenda of those providing the grant. Instead, these entire five years have been about kids, and what is best for kids. 

Larry and the Mebane Board have challenged us, they’ve asked us great questions to make us think forward and to reflect, but most importantly, they have trusted us to make the decisions we needed to make to do our work.

They have understood our world when we faced COVID, remote learning, and state assessments that changed at least three times, things not in our control. Always they have supported us, always they have trusted us, so the video you are about to watch speaks volumes.”

During the presentation, Peggy Nuckolls, director of title 1 and preschool services, recognized many who played a role in driving the DavieLEADS initiative forward, beginning with the Foundation. “Without their vision, guidance, challenge, and financial support to push us further, we could not have implemented this critical step in our school system.” 

“The Mebane Foundation staff, President Larry Colbourne, and Susan Domanski, office administrator, helped us to achieve collaboration and cooperation with the board and to stay on track with our purpose for this initiative. Jeanna White, writer and owner of Word Master Media Group, helped us to step to the next level by publicizing our work, which is when we became a leader among other counties searching for something to make a difference in their education community.” 

She thanked the Mebane Board for “being not only visionaries but compassionate with a clear perception,” and said, “Their challenging questions were always leading us and pushing us to become better and to think outside of the box and to explore the opportunities in front of us.”  

Nuckolls remarked that the Board had stressed the importance of finding the right people to support this important work and to build the right kind of relationships. “As we moved through Year 1 we knew we had done just that with coaches Stephanie Nelson, Amy Spade, and Renee Hennings-Gonzalez who brought our vision to life.” She ended by thanking DavieLEADS consultants Barbie Brown and Nancy Scoggin for “constructing a way to build positive relationships and for sharing their knowledge.” 

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.”

Cognitive ToyBox: Building a Culture of Data-Informed Instruction in Davie County Preschools

Central Davie Preschool student works on Cognitive ToyBox

By Jeanna Baxter White

Despite a challenging 2020-2021 school year due to complications around COVID-19, Davie County preschools continue to help children get a strong start towards kindergarten readiness. One beneficial tool that preschool teachers continued to utilize was Cognitive ToyBox, a game-based assessment platform.

Davie County Schools (DCS) has now used Cognitive ToyBox for four years to help teachers reach their kindergarten readiness goals as part of DavieLEADS, the school system’s five-year early literacy initiative aimed at improving kindergarten readiness and increasing the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade, which is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation.

During the first three years, DCS focused on data collection: ensuring that teachers could collect assessment data on an ongoing basis with fidelity. With that achieved, this year’s goal was focused on action: ensuring that teachers could use the data to individualize and improve instruction. 

Peggy Nuckolls, director of preschool services, and Stephanie Nelson, preschool collaborative teacher, kicked off the school year with group trainings on how teachers can use Cognitive ToyBox reports for both whole group and small group instruction.

Nelson heard from teachers that data accessibility is extremely important. For reports to be useful for teachers, “they must be easily accessible through a computer,” and they must be displayed in a context that is applicable for their classroom routines. The Cognitive ToyBox team gathered additional feedback from teacher surveys to better understand how to adapt reports to the classroom context. They learned that teachers wanted “at a quick glance” reports that provide guidance on their progress to date, and what to do next in moving children towards school readiness.

“Cognitive ToyBox is continuing to refine the technology to ensure that it is the most beneficial assessment platform available,” said Tammy Kwan, co-founder and CEO of Cognitive ToyBox. “We aim to show that classrooms that use our platform are better supported through data, leading to improved school readiness and third-grade reading rates.”

The Cognitive ToyBox team built a new teacher web portal to access reports through the computer. Here, teachers also have access to a dashboard that enables an at-a-glance understanding of how their class is progressing towards school readiness (see Progress Report by Domain), as well as what to do next in moving their class forward (see Small Group Report by Objective).

Progress Report by Domain

The Cognitive ToyBox Progress Report by Developmental Domain: Teachers can track their class progress over the school year broken down by domain, e.g. Language and Literacy, as well as specific objectives within that domain, e.g. Alliteration and Alphabet.

Small Group Report by Objective

The Cognitive ToyBox Small Group Report (with fictional data): children play a specific game, e.g. the lowercase alphabet assessment game, and teachers review the data and use it to inform instruction. For example, during whole group instruction, teachers may focus their instruction on the letters that were identified as Least Recognized. During small group instruction, teachers can use the data to inform instructional adjustments for each group.

Mebane Foundation Will Fund Use Again For 2021-2022

The feedback on the web portal has been positive, with one teacher sharing that they like to “access the reports for more student-specific information on what to do.” Another teacher shared that they use the web portal “after each skill is assessed to see who needs more instruction.” A third teacher shared that the Cognitive ToyBox reports gave them “another piece of data to inform findings for possible learning delays.”

Davie PreK teachers review and discuss next steps based on Cognitive ToyBox child assessment data. (Courtesy of Davie County Schools)

The teachers got together in the Spring of 2021 to discuss how they used the reports and data to adjust instruction in their respective classrooms. Nelson commented, “Through our professional learning communities, it’s exciting to see our teachers share best practices and build a culture of data-informed instruction. The teacher-friendly Cognitive ToyBox reports have been instrumental in helping teachers get comfortable with using data on a weekly basis.”

Pleased with the feedback that DCS has given about Cognitive ToyBox, the Mebane Foundation has agreed to fund the use of the program for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

“Tammy’s organization, Cognitive ToyBox, has proven it can deliver the goods when it comes to providing a high-quality, data-driven assessment tool that is geared toward making teachers’ jobs easier,” said Mebane Foundation President Larry Colbourne. “More impressive to me is that over the last four years she and her staff have worked hand-in-hand with our teachers in Davie County to improve their end product. Many organizations tell us they want to “partner,” but that is often not really the case. However, Tammy’s group has truly listened to suggestions and made the product more user-friendly. At the end of the day teachers’ jobs are made easier, and most importantly, young students are benefitting tremendously from this cutting edge technology.”


Cognitive ToyBox makes child assessment easy and actionable for early childhood educators through its combination of research-backed observation and game-based assessment tools.

The platform returns 100 hours of instructional time to teachers in a given school year while also reducing the feedback time between assessment and instructional adjustment.

Cognitive ToyBox works with Head Start and Pre-K programs across 15 states, reaching 150,000 children from birth to five years of age.  For more information visit or contact Dr. Tammy at

Davie County Schools Implement Heggerty to Support Phonemic Awareness

By Jeanna Baxter White

Susan Shepherd guides her first-graders at Cornatzer Elementary identify initial sounds in words.

“Deep,” says Susan Shepherd to her first-graders.

“Deep,” they repeat. 

“Replace the /p/ with /l/,” she says.

“Deal,” shouts her students. 

Shepherd is guiding her students through their daily Heggerty Phonemic Awareness lesson. Phonemic awareness is the ability to understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds called phonemes, and it’s one of the best early predictors for reading success.

Recognizing the importance of phonemic awareness as a foundational reading skill, Davie County Schools (DCS) in Mocksville, North Carolina, adopted the curriculum this year as part of DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), its five-year early literacy initiative funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation to improve kindergarten readiness and increase third-grade reading proficiency.

Phonemic awareness builds what DavieLEADS Literacy Coach Amy Spade calls “the parking place for phonics.”

If a child cannot hear that “man” and “moon” begin with the same sound or cannot blend the sounds /s/ /u/ /n/ into the word “sun,” he or she may have great difficulty connecting sounds with their written symbols and the ability to decode words. Without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense.

Engaging in phonemic awareness instruction develops students’ understanding of sounds, which also directly impacts their reading, spelling, and writing.

Examples of Phonemic Awareness Skills include

  • Blending: What word am I trying to say? Mmmmm…aaaaaaaa…n.
  • Segmentation (first sound isolation): What is the first sound in man? /m/
  • Segmentation (last sound isolation): What is the last sound in man? /n/
  • Segmenting Phonemes: What are all the sounds you hear in man? /m/ /a/ /n/

“As the LEADS team worked with curriculum leaders in the county looking at DCS K-1 students’ data, the team saw a need to increase core instruction in phonemic awareness. After attending training, doing research, and talking with literacy leaders from around the state, we chose Heggerty because it is really intentional, but also easy to implement. Thanks to its explicit and systematic approach, teachers are able to complete the lessons in just 10-12 minutes a day. Everything we’ve heard so far has been positive and teachers are saying they are already seeing a difference,” said Spade.

“The preschool component of Davie LEADS collaborates with the elementary component to ensure vertical alignment of curriculum from preschool to kindergarten,” explained Stephanie Nelson, LEADS preschool collaborative teacher. “After Amy Spade and Renee Hennings-Gonzalaz (LEADS literacy coaches) shared their kindergarten data and the idea of using Heggerty, we were interested immediately. Preschool data from the Cognitive ToyBox assessment games showed that preschool students needed more instruction in rhyme, which is one component of Heggerty.  Even though we didn’t have data to support other phonemic areas, we saw that the curriculum could support teachers in creating explicit, multisensory, and systematic phonemic awareness instruction.”

Each level of the Heggerty program provides 35 weeks of daily lessons, focusing on eight phonological awareness skills, along with two additional activities to develop letter and sound recognition, and language awareness.

Daily lessons teach early, basic, and advanced phonemic awareness skills such as:

  • Rhyming
  • Onset fluency
  • Isolating final or medial sounds
  • Blending and segmenting compound words, syllables, and phonemes
  • Adding, deleting, and substituting compound words, syllables, and  phonemes

The program is now used in more than 7,250 school districts across the country.

DCS introduced the curriculum at the end of the 2019-2020 school year as a pilot program in four pre-K and five kindergarten classes two weeks before schools closed and remote instruction began in March. Despite the pilot program’s short duration, the response was so positive that Heggerty was introduced into all kindergarten and first-grade classes in August, all NC pre-K classes in December, and was added to select second-grade classrooms based on student need.

Carrie Carter and her assistant Alisa Allen guide students through Heggerty at William R. Davie Preschool.

Phonemic Awareness Benefits Reading, Writing, and Spelling

“As teachers, we like that it is written in an easy-to-use format and we aren’t having to come up with these activities on our own,” said Shepherd, who teaches first-grade at Cornatzer Elementary School. “I would tell other schools looking at the program that it is easy to implement and not a lot of extra work on the teacher, but it is a really effective program.” 

Based on the benefits she saw while piloting the program, Shepherd even recorded Heggerty videos at least twice a week during remote learning so that families would have the option to continue using the program if they wanted to.

“In the past, we’ve done phonemic awareness activities but not to the level that this program offers. I have been doing a lot of research about reading and how children learn to read and it appears phonemic awareness is one of the missing pieces for struggling readers. If you think about the building blocks of reading, it’s the first step they need to learn before they move on to other reading skills. I think this program will provide the solid foundation our children need from the beginning.”

Josey Redinger and students at Central Davie Preschool delete phonemes during a Heggerty lesson.

She commented that many struggling readers have difficulty spelling which also translates into their writing. Heggerty is helping to resolve those issues as well. “If you can’t hear every sound in a word you aren’t going to be able to spell and write as well. There are eight skills we do every day. Sometimes we are segmenting words and then we are blending them back together and then we are taking off sounds and then adding sounds and switching sounds in words. This also helps them in reading.”

Jill O’Toole, a pre-K teacher at Pinebrook Elementary School who also piloted the program, said, “It has given me a quick way to incorporate several key phonemic awareness activities into one short lesson that keeps the children engaged. I see that the repetition gives them confidence in what they are doing and gives them many chances to succeed.”

Josey Redinger, who teaches pre-K at Central Davie, has seen significant improvement in the area of rhyming, specifically,  when comparing data from last school year to the current school year.  “I understand that this greatly benefits my students in the future when they are beginning reading in kindergarten!”

As a 28-year teaching veteran, Shady Grove Elementary Kindergarten Teacher Traci Richardson has seen programs come and go, but says Heggerty is proving to be worth keeping.

“I like the way it provides a quick and easy way to teach phonemic awareness skills to my students each day. It has also helped me to detect early on if my students are struggling in the different reading areas and allows me to address those weaknesses when I break my students up into small groups.”

She is impressed by the way her students have connected with the program. “Heggerty uses hand motions for many of the different areas like making a roller coaster motion with their hand to isolate the medial sound in a word. As my students are learning to read this year, I’ve noticed many of them applying the strategies they’ve learned and using the hand motions to help them sound out or blend a word.”

“Children in kindergarten learn through structure and repetition and Heggerty provides that in each lesson. My students know every day what to expect and they are used to the routine. Repetition is key for foundational reading skills for 5 and 6-year-old kids and these oral and auditory word games are laying that foundation.”

Nikki Whiteheart and first-graders at Cooleemee Elementary School.

Combating and Preventing Learning Gaps

Carrie Carter and students at William R Davie Preschool demonstrate the hand motions that go along with deleting sounds as part of a Heggerty exercise.

After training and implementation occurred in the fall of 2020, the teachers noted that they love the way the program is combating learning gaps caused by the sudden transition to remote learning and hopefully preventing new ones.

“I really, really like this program,” said Nikki Whiteheart who teaches first grade at Cooleemee Elementary. “It has helped fill in a lot of gaps we’ve noticed that kids are having with being able to identify sounds and manipulate the sounds in words. Because they are now used to hearing the sounds in words and are better able to sound them out, they are better at reading and writing as well.”

“Even if last year and this year had been typical school years I think Heggerty would have helped fill in gaps but with these students having to suddenly transition to virtual kindergarten it has been doubly helpful. Heggerty has been great all around.  I am very grateful to our school system for seeing our childrens’ needs and finding a program that will meet them.”

Tina Dyson, who teaches kindergarten at William R. Davie Elementary, is equally impressed with the curriculum. “To see these kids and where they started kindergarten and where they are now has been amazing, and it is all because of the Heggerty program!”  

“I started the year with 21 students and maybe four of them could say the alphabet. I had to take a step back. Many of my students didn’t get to finish preschool. They were just getting into the meat of Letterland and alphabet recognition when we transitioned to remote learning.”

“Thanks to a combination of Heggerty and Letterland, all of my students can now say the alphabet, recognize the letters, and blend and segment sounds. This week they wrote sentences. I don’t think they could have done that without the Heggerty lessons and that background. We started with little chunks and now we’ve really built something here in March. If a five or six-year-old can do this, imagine what would happen if the program was carried over across the grades?”

Students Find Heggerty Fun and Engaging

Beyond the academic benefits, all of the teachers interviewed said their students find Heggerty fun and engaging and look forward to their daily lesson.

“We start our day with breakfast and morning meeting and then my students are so excited because it is Heggerty time,” said Dyson. “I’ve heard them say ‘This is my Show What I Know Time!!’ They watch as I turn the pages of the manual and when I reach the third page they are asking me ‘are we on the last part already?’ Through the daily repetition, they’ve come to know the program so well that if I forget to do a hand motion, they are quick to point it out to me.”

She teaches her lessons on Google Meet so that children who are out for the day have the option to participate in both Heggerty and Letterland. “They never want to miss Heggerty or Letterland!” she said with a laugh. Parents who have observed a Google Meet lesson have been equally enthusiastic. “I’ve had parents stick their head in the screen and make comments like they can’t believe what they are seeing and hearing!”

I had the pleasure of observing one of the lessons on Google Meet and had to agree. I watched the students wiggle in their seats as they eagerly waited for the start of the lesson and then was amazed by their enthusiasm and focus as they mimicked the hand motions and completed each word exercise.

Dyson added, “I wish there had been a way to document where we started with Heggerty from day one until now, but what I do see is their happy eyes.”

Traci Richardson and kindergarteners at Shady Grove Elementary School are punching out final sounds.

Community Support and Spirit Are Alive and Well

Davie County COVID-19 Response Fund to Support Non-Profits on the Front Lines

Nate Hampton (Junior at Davie High) picking up food from Second Harvest Food bank
Nate Hampton (Junior at Davie High) picking up food from Second Harvest Food Bank

Ten days ago, Davie High Hunger Fighters served students at the high school. Now the group is packing food boxes for almost 700 children and their families in Davie County Schools on a weekly basis.

During a crisis, non-profit organizations like DHHF are on the front lines and expected to do much more, typically with fewer resources. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is having a profound effect on our community. These organizations need our help and support to be able to serve our children, families, and the community in these extraordinary times. 

In response, the Davie Community Foundation and the Mebane Charitable Foundation have each contributed $50,000 to establish the Davie County COVID-19 Response Fund with $100,000 to support local non-profit organizations and agencies that are meeting the immediate needs created by the coronavirus. 

“We have no idea what all the needs are right now, or what they might look like a week, a month, three months or a year from now, but this fund is being set up with one main goal, and that is to be there for our community and non-profits, as new needs arise in the coming days and months,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. 

Davie County non-profit organizations and agencies providing a “safety net” for families during this difficult economic situation may submit a short application for grants of up to $5,000. The application can be found on the Davie Community Foundation’s website under the grants tab. These funds may be used for organizational capacity or direct services to/for the children and families they serve.

The Davie Community Foundation will administer the fund and oversee the application process. A community committee of representatives from both foundations, Davie County Schools, and the non-profit sector will make grant decisions to ensure a quick response.

There are many organizations that will soon be serving more members of our community as K-12 schools remain closed, local businesses close, and we all work to avoid groups of ten or more.

Lori Smith, Jimmie Welch (EC Teacher at Davie High) Nate Hampton at Second Harvest Food Bank
Lori Smith, Jimmie Welch (EC Teacher at Davie High) Nate Hampton at Second Harvest Food Bank

Other community organizations currently serving on the front lines include:

Just Hope which has stepped up to deliver the meals the school system is preparing to more than 27 children who have no way to pick them up. The round trip takes more than 4 hours each day as they travel all around the county and they fully expect those numbers to increase. Their office and thrift store are currently closed which means their donations and funding are on hold.

A Storehouse for Jesus which is offering curbside pickup for client prescription refills. They also have drive around service to pick up food bags based upon family size. Current clients are tracked through their ID#. Approximately 20 new clients were added during the first week of the schools closing as other food pantries were depleted. They expect this number to continue to rise. All other ministries have been temporarily discontinued.

Family Promise of Davie County which has been told to “shelter in place” with the families they are serving. Because of the limited space in the Day Center home and their inability to use their church partners, two families are staying in a local motel at the expense of Family Promise.

The need is great and growing! All aspects of our community will be impacted, from young children to seniors, before we see significant improvement.

“We know that $100,000 will not be enough, so we are looking for other partners to join with us,” said Jane Simpson, president & CEO of the Davie Community Foundation. “We all need to give where we live! Please consider a gift of any size as we work together to be as our Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Davie Strong”!”

How You Can Give

Credit Card: Give online HERE

Check: Payable to Davie Community Foundation should be mailed to the Foundation at PO Box 546, Mocksville, NC 27028 & marked COVID-19 in the memo section

DCF donor-advised fundholders: Request a grant through the DCF website using your pin # or reach out to Melissa O’Connor at the Foundation Office; 

Every dollar contributed goes to support the community! No administrative fees will be applied. 

Taylor Smith (8th grade Ellis) Kadence Boggard (8th grade North Davie)

Different But Not Different

During the spring of 2019, the Mebane Foundation began piloting a unique tutoring program that utilizes a retired teacher to provide the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) to students who don’t receive the powerful literacy intervention during the school day.

Luwonna Oakes, Davie HillRAP teacher; Honor Draughn, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Petra Murphy, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Amelia Battle, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Brynlee Logan, a third-grade student at Pinebrook Elementary School

“Our number one goal is to help children succeed in reading,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. “Secondly, we are trying to assist the Hill Center by testing a tutoring model that makes the Hill methodology accessible to a lot more families and students.” 

Note: This article by Mike Barnhardt was originally published in the Davie County Enterprise-Record and is republished here with permission.

We’re all different, but not different.

Even as a fourth-grader at Mocksville Elementary, Honor Draughn knows that. And she knows that the message would be great for her peers.

Luwonna Oakes, a tutor at the Mebane Foundation in Mocksville, helped children last spring to write, edit and publish their own books.

“All of the students did a superb job on their books and they were each special,” she said. “I had them decide on a targeted audience they were writing for – their author’s purpose.

A Message With An Impact

Honor Draughn wrote an endearing book about showing kindness to those who are ‘Different, but not Different,’ the title of her book.”

She donated a book to each elementary school guidance counselor in Davie County. And according to at least one of those counselors, the book is working.

“Honor is a young child making a difference in Davie Schools, impacting peers with a book on such a needed topic is so special,” Oakes said.

The book, Honor said, is dedicated to everybody who may feel different.

“Do you know some people are different, but not different? Some people do not get it, but it’s true. People think that some children are different, but inside they are not so different.

Honor Draughn author of Different but not Different a book making a difference for students in Davie County schools

“Take the time to get to know them,” she wrote. “Some people that seem different have been through a lot. Difficult things have happened to some children and other people make fun of them and judge them from the outside because of the way they act.”

The children, she wrote, may have lost a parent. Some parents who make bad choices have children who are confused, upset or angry.

Don’t Judge

“Some people do not give these children a chance to prove what is on the inside, behind the way they act.”

Some of the children may be less fortunate. She urges her peers not to brag about expensive toys or lavish vacations. “I do not want to make them feel like they don’t get to do fun things in life.

“If you see someone that is being judged or if you are being judged, remember, I am unique for who I am. This makes me who I am. You do not have to change to fit in. I want you to remember this, you are you, you are who you are, and do not let anybody stand in your way of you being you.”

She urges her peers to be kind to one another, “even if someone is mean to you.”

Tell an Adult

If hit or kicked, tell an adult. “This is not being a tattletale, but dealing with a problem in the right way.

“Be a good friend. Do not judge people by the way they act. You can be a good influence and be there for others.”

Helping Others Helps Us Too

Helping a child with a problem can help you and the child, she said.

“We all are different. No one is perfect,” she wrote, encouraging peers to look for ways people are like you, not different.

“I want you to remember this. Everybody is different. We all are really different and that’s what makes us unique. It makes me be me and you be you.”

Project Sunburn Sparks Excitement at Davie County High School

By Jeanna Baxter White

Davie County High School has embarked upon a cross-curricular project never before attempted at the North Carolina high school level. Through Project Sunburn, Davie hopes to be the first high school program in North Carolina to design,  build, and ultimately to compete with a solar-powered vehicle. 

While the short-term goal is to successfully race a solar-powered vehicle, the long-term goal is to position Davie County High School as the home track for the first high school-sanctioned race in North Carolina. The project culminates a year of teacher-led research and is backed by collegiate level programs at Cape Fear Community College and Appalachian State University which want to grow their solar programs into the secondary education level.

Members of the "Zip Ties" engineering group take measurements of the kart to be transferred to a digital model so that soft changes can be made before physical ones. This is in the CTE Building at DCHS.
Members of the “Zip Ties” engineering group take measurements of the kart to be transferred to a digital model so that soft changes can be made before physical ones. This is in the CTE Building at DCHS.

Project-Based Learning at Its Best

What began as a lunchtime conversation that resonated with multiple teachers has become a partnership between Davie High Career and Technical Education and Davie High STEM Center to keep the War Eagles at the forefront of what education has the capacity to do.

“Adults often complain that students don’t understand the real world,” said Collin Ferebee, Earth and Environmental Science teacher and project advisor. “This project will help the students see what the real world is like. When you give students a reason for the things they are doing in the classroom, even the tedious things, they develop a totally different level of motivation.” 

Through the War Eagle Motorsports Club, students are responsible for the vehicle’s marketing, social media, fabrication, engineering, design, and electronics with facilitation from instructors.  

“The sole focus of the project is concurrent learning with both teacher and student involved together in the process. We welcome failures and the learning that directly proceeds from them,” said advisor, Will Marrs, who teaches drafting and engineering. “Students are at the forefront of deciding the direction of the War Eagle Motorsports club, creating something that they are proud of being a part of.” 

War Eagles Motorsports Club is Student-Led and Collaborative

Allie Williams, club secretary and project lead in marketing and social media said, “I’m excited for the finished product of the car, but I’m most excited about the teamwork and the collaborative work that’s going into it.”

Ferebee stated, “We are homegrown.  Part of our leadership team behind this project is Mr. Will Marrs, Mr. Seth James, Mrs. Karla Freeman and myself.  We are all DCHS alumni and proud of the program that raised us. One of our major pushes in doing this is to give students opportunities in their education that we wish we had in our academic careers as War Eagles. We want to redefine the idea of authentic learning that can happen within the classroom.”  

Marrs shared an example. “When we met with the solar race team at Appalachian we had the opportunity to tour their shop. A Hispanic female student who graduated from Davie two years ago ran up to Mr. Robinson (Lester) and asked what he was doing there. She explained that she is now a mechanical engineering student but didn’t even know she was interested in engineering as a student at Davie. We don’t know how many students may be under-served.”  

Jackson Clark, a War Eagle Motorsports member and leader of the “Zip-Ties” engineering group, works on a digital model of the vehicle.

Authentic Learning is the Program’s Goal

Currently, the project is in the building proof of concept phase, with over 30 group members of War Eagle Motorsports spanning freshman through senior, male and female, banding together to tackle their chosen niche of the project. “ We love giving students the chance to get their hands dirty whether it be in fabrication, turning a wrench or just getting some grease on their hands while achieving real-world learning that they will hopefully remember past graduation,” said Seth James, automotive instructor at DCHS and advisor.

“When you think motorsports you typically think white males, but we want everyone included,” Ferebee said. 

Excitement remains high in the student groups as each sector in charge of specific tasks have classified themselves with codenames such as “The Zipties” (the engineering group), or “S.P.F. 100” (Sole Provider of Funds) who are in charge of marketing. Students are currently using technologies such as 3D Modeling software to construct a digital model of a purchased go-kart chassis that will serve as the bones of the vehicle. Team members are meeting once or more per week with their instructor as students officers and representatives decide and operate meeting schedules.  

Jackson Clark, a member of the engineering group, referenced the community that the project has created. “The coolest thing about Project Sunburn is that you have lots of different people, each with unique talents, working together to build a car. Some people are gifted in engineering, others in fabrication, and others in marketing, but we are all working TOGETHER towards a goal.”

War Eagle Motorsports Needs Your Help!

To complete their goal, War Eagle Motorsports needs YOUR help. “The project is motivated by the opportunities to create cross-curricular and community partnerships,” said Marrs. “We greatly appreciate the support we’ve received from the Mebane Foundation as well as an anonymous donor, and we welcome any feedback and additional resources.”

Ways the Community Can Help 

  1. Monetary Donations – These would be given to War Eagle Motorsports at DCHS and be used directly toward the project and to help students in the club and program. Our next big purchase will be a trailer for War Eagle Motorsports to transport the solar car as well as other projects that we have planned. This would be in the neighborhood of $10,000 – $15,000 dollars.
  2. Physical Resources – “This may be anything from automotive tools, fabrication tools, solar panels and parts, electronics, fabrication materials such as metals and different things, marketing materials, parts, etc.  This may also be something in the form of giving a student time in a machine shop, or fabrication, or time at a marketing firm. This is a large category, so we would be more than happy to talk to anyone interested in helping in this area.”
  3. Involvement – “We want the community to be a part of this project. Our ultimate goal is to have a high-school level race sanctioned at DCHS and to be the first high school in North Carolina to do it.  We need individuals who would like to be part of a committee and involved in the planning, marketing, and undertaking of the event. We have several teachers but we would like this to be community-centered.  Involvement also comes in the form of just wanting to help out. Someone may want to help students wire things, or fabricate, or provide tips on marketing.  Involvement could also mean helping our students with apprenticeship opportunities, shadowing opportunities, or internship opportunities. We would love to have this as well.”
  4. Sponsorship – “If someone would like to sponsor us at a level, we would love to discuss that opportunity, as well. This would be an excellent chance for someone to market themselves in a new undertaking in Davie County Schools’ education.”
  5. Advocacy – “Positive encouragement, positive exposure, following us on social media, spreading the word.  Any kind of marketing or spreading of our mission would be awesome.  Communication and asking us how you can be a part of things is awesome, we will find a way for someone to be involved if they would like to be.”
  6. Advocacy for SkillsUSA – “SkillsUSA is a club at Davie County High School that allows students to compete against other high schools in the state, and nation, in numerous areas of Career and Technical Education.  However, the mission of SkillsUSA first and foremost is the development of work-ready skills within high school students no matter if they are seeking the workforce, university, or technical school after graduation. I mention this because someone may not be able to help, or may not want to help with War Eagle Motorsports, but still want to help in building our Career and Technical Education program at Davie.  This is an excellent way to do it.  Our country is in dire need of the skilled worker and this organization champions the development of work-ready skills for any path after graduation. The SkillsUSA website is here if you would like more information on it.  There is also a website for the SkillsUSA NC organization located here.”  
  7. Advocacy and Involvement in DCHS STEM Center – “Davie County High School is a STEM accredited high school. Our goal as instructors is to involve and immerse students in STEM experiences (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) that give them the chance to spark interests that may influence their life decisions past the graduation stage. Our country is in great need of the STEM-minded individual and Davie County Schools is incredibly proud to be at the forefront of developing this type of education. We would love to work with any individual or organization that would like to contribute time to speak or demonstrate to students or provide resources or monetary contributions. Everything goes straight to work for our students.”
Automotive Instructor Seth James overseas War Eagle Motorsports member Laura Newsom in removing excess parts of the frame during early fabrication.

You can follow Project Sunburn’s journey on Instagram and Facebook, or reach out to the team by email here .

Kindergarten Readiness Showing Promising Gains in Davie County

By Jeanna Baxter White

Kindergarten readiness in Davie County has already shown tremendous gains in just the first two years of DavieLEADS, according to a report by Davie County Schools.

DIAL-4 Kindergarten Readiness Data — Davie County, North Carolina

Funded by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation, DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed) is an early learning and literacy initiative with two major goals. The first is to increase kindergarten readiness to 90 percent by reaching and fostering the development of children at an early age (birth to kindergarten) through consistent curriculum, instruction, and experiences in preschool programs. The second goal is to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade to 80 percent by building capacity in staff, strengthening instructional strategies, and updating materials aligned with state standards K-3.

Davie County Schools measures kindergarten readiness with the Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning-Fourth Edition (DIAL-4), an individually administered, nationally-normed, developmentally appropriate screening tool designed to identify young children who are at-risk and need help with academic skills. The DIAL-4 tests a child’s motor skills (skipping, jumping, cutting, writing), conceptual skills (knowledge of colors, counting), and language skills (knowledge of letters and words, and ability to solve problems). The skills measured by the DIAL-4 are proven to help predict a child’s readiness and future success in the classroom.

DIAL screening is completed as part of the kindergarten registration process, which begins in the spring prior to enrollment. The table below shows a comparison of DIAL data from 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19. While reaching and assessing more students each year (1 percent more in 2018-19, but 9 percent more since initial implementation), there has also been an increase in the percentage demonstrating readiness for kindergarten. There was a 6 percent increase in kindergarten readiness in the second year of DavieLEADS implementation, which represents an overall increase of 15 percent in readiness since the initiative began.

Table – DIAL-4 Kindergarten Readiness Data

% of Kindergarten Students Screened % of Screened Students “Kindergarten Ready”
2016-17 75% 71%
2017-18 83% 80%
2018-19 84% 86%
Change Year 1 to Year 2 +1% +6%
Change Since Implementation +9% +15%


“Continuing to see growth as our efforts increase to support and provide resources from the public schools speak volumes to our collaboration with the private providers in early education and interventions,” said Peggy Nuckolls, director of preschool services for Davie County.  “We would not see this type of climb without this grant from the Mebane Foundation which allows the early childhood community to teach the same curriculum and use the same assessments that guide our practices daily.”

Nuckolls and Stephanie Nelson, preschool collaborative teacher for Davie County, shared the strategies they believe account for this growth.

First and foremost has been the sharing of a county-wide common language about what kindergarten readiness means.

“What we mean by common language about kindergarten readiness is that all of the people supporting preschool students have a common understanding of precisely what skills students need instruction on in preschool to help them have a successful introduction to kindergarten,” said Nelson. “Having a common kindergarten readiness language based on the NC Foundations for Early Learning and Development helps keep the focus on developmental facts rather than feeling like anyone’s personal knowledge of young children is being challenged.”

Another strategy through DavieLEADS has been to support more consistency in curriculum and instruction across all preschool programs, public school-based, private, and faith-based.

“Coordinating the curriculum between private and public preschools ensures the same high-quality instruction no matter the preschool setting,” said Nelson.

Letterland, a phonics-based program that teaches students how to read, write, and spell, has become one such program. Letterland is a well-established program for students from preschool to 2nd grade, with a carefully constructed curriculum for children at each grade level. The program has friendly ‘pictogram’ 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.

From 2016-2018, the Mebane Foundation provided Letterland materials, software, and professional development for NC Pre-K to 2nd-grade classrooms in Davie County. Faith-based programs received the materials, software, and training during the 2018-2019 school year.

Additionally, using Letterland across the board provides all of the preschool students with the same frame of reference and eases their transition into kindergarten because they are already familiar with the Letterland characters.

“Thanks to Mebane grant funds, we have also been able to provide Teaching Strategies GOLD® as a unified tool to measure student progress in NC Pre-K preschool programs that did not have prior access,” said Nuckolls.

The Teaching Strategies GOLD® provides a continuum for student learning and is aligned with North Carolina’s Early Learning Standards. GOLD is an ongoing observational system that allows preschool staff to assess students’ growth. This system also helps teachers increase the effectiveness of their lessons as they identify children’s developmental levels and describe their knowledge, skills, and behaviors.

The table below shows the six areas that are assessed and percentages of students meeting/exceeding growth expectations in public versus private preschools in years 1 and 2 of implementation. This provides yet another data source that can be studied in subsequent years of the DavieLEADS initiative.

Table – PreK GOLD Assessments


Domains Assessed

Private Public
17-18 18-19   17-18 18-19
Social 72% 78% 97% 95%
Physical 79% 82% 97% 100%
Language 77% 81% 90% 100%
Cognitive 81% 84% 84% 89%
Literacy 79% 88% 96% 100%
Mathematics 81% 88% 93% 95%

As an additional assessment tool, Nuckolls and Nelson chose to pilot Cognitive ToyBox, a game-based assessment platform to measure school readiness. Their goal was to increase the reliability of student assessments across the county.

Cognitive ToyBox enables a direct assessment of early language, literacy, math, and social-emotional skills. Using a touchscreen device, students play one assessment game per week for an average of five minutes, and teachers have access to NC standards-aligned reports that support them in planning for instruction and for supporting individual student needs.

“Through Cognitive ToyBox, we have an unprecedented level of individualized data across language and literacy, math and social-emotional development that we can use to improve instruction and individualization on an ongoing basis,” said Nuckolls.

Sherri Robinson, Pre-K teacher at Hillsdale Baptist Preschool watches as Stephanie Nelson, DCS preschool collaborative teacher in Peter Puppy Letterland costume engages students

However, both Nuckolls and Nelson believe that intensive coaching and consistent support have produced the greatest impact on scores, and Nelson’s services have provided the secret sauce.

She was hired through grant funds to build relationships with the various child care programs in the county and to provide coaching services and support to the teachers as they learn to use the new curriculum and assessment tools provided by the grant.

“For teachers, knowing that someone is coming in on a consistent basis and caring about what you do makes a huge difference in how you plan and prepare,” said Nuckolls. “Without the support, the modeling, and the checking in to make sure the fidelity is there and continues, the resources mean nothing.”

“It’s hard for administrators to consistently provide coaching and support for new curriculum when they have so many business aspects to take care of in the running of a child care program. It is very important to have a collaborative teacher in the facility working weekly and monthly with those teachers answering questions and helping them fine-tune the use of resources throughout their classrooms in all aspects of their schedule.”

During Year 2, Nelson worked with 12 licensed and unlicensed pre-K childcare centers, including seven faith-based programs, one Head Start, and four private child care programs, and provided:

  • 100 coaching visits with private NC pre-K programs that fostered consistent and aligned curriculum.
  • 28 coaching visits for Letterland implementation and literacy awareness of state standards for 3 & 4-year-olds in faith-based programs to build common K readiness language across the community.
  • 2 collaborative trainings with Smart Start (30 participants)
  • 14 leadership trainings for licensed and non-licensed directors
  • 4 collaborative PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) with public and private teachers to encourage professional dialogue and sharing of preschool information and to support teachers by creating a community of adult learners.
  • 1 Cognitive Toy Box training and monthly support
  • 6 adult learning tours for preschool teachers and directors
  • 10 student and teacher field trips for all rising kindergarten children

Nelson said her efforts have been well-received. “There has been great buy-in. Both the teachers and directors have been invested collaborators. They’ve wanted this support. When I work with teachers, I make sure my coaching is individualized to their needs and I use their strengths to support an area they want to improve upon.”

Nelson has also provided teachers with training and support on how to nurture a student’s social-emotional education. “We know that part of preparing children for kindergarten is helping them to improve their self-regulation, their attention to tasks, and their ability to participate in a group setting. All are key factors to their success in kindergarten.”

“This year we are also focusing on supporting directors in becoming curriculum leaders so that they can maintain the momentum post-grant,” Nelson continued. “I’m meeting with them monthly and helping them learn how to access the new data, dig deeper into the data, and utilize that data to make a plan for supporting their teachers.”

“Our child care providers have always done a good job at meeting regulatory standards. We’ve focused on creating that common language of how we can meet child care regulations yet still add some structure and some meat to the curriculum so that students are ready for the structure that they’re going to be hit with in kindergarten.”

Adult learning tours for preschool teachers and directors to visit kindergarten classrooms and talk to kindergarten teachers have been eye-opening. “Kindergarten expectations have changed so much in the past 5 to 10 years. I think one of the best things that have come out of the tours was for the preschool teachers to hear the kindergarten teachers say ‘you’re doing a great job. The children we get from your program are coming in and have a lot of the skills we need them to have.’”

“When you are teaching by yourself because your child care center only has one four-year-old class you’re kind of working in a vacuum and hoping you’re making good choices, but you don’t have anybody to validate that or to make recommendations.”

To reinforce the teachers’ new-found confidence and to expand dialogue across the county, Nelson established a county-wide PLC group last May. This year the group hit the ground running.

“We have invited any teacher anywhere in the community that teaches three or four-year-olds to get involved because we want to encourage that professional conversation. So many of our classrooms in the county are blended, so including our three-year-old teachers facilitates talks about vertical alignment of curriculum.”

“We’ve got faith-based and private child care and public school teachers involved and it’s been a great success so far with about 15 people attending each meeting. We’ve also created an online platform that any teacher can access where we’ve uploaded the PLC agenda, the PLC minutes, and any other information or helpful hints or ideas that teachers share with each other.”

“For example, one month we had a whole conversation about how to creatively engage students and group time activities to keep their bodies and brains moving. We had teachers share different songs and different activities that they like to do and so we uploaded samples of that to this platform. Even if you can’t attend, you can still go on to the platform and be connected.”

“Meetings are hosted by a different childcare center or teacher each month. That was an idea that the teachers came up with. This is teacher-led and they are in charge of it. They came up with the idea as a way to see what others are doing in their classrooms and why. It’s been exciting to see them take ownership of their professional development.” Nelson added.

Nuckolls and Nelson are pleased that the momentum is continuing to grow.

“I had two teachers from two totally different programs get together and do some planning and some ideas sharing on a teacher workday,” Nelson shared with a smile. “To me, that was a huge sign of success.”

Smart Start of Davie County – Prepare Your Children for Success!

Emily MacCaull and her son Tommy explore free Smart Start Toy Kits

Emily MacCaull and her son Tommy explore free Smart Start Toy Kits

By Jeanna Baxter White

Four-year-old Tommy carefully considers the boxes of toys lining the Smart Start bookshelves before selecting a kit labeled “Sand and Water Play.” His mom, Emily MacCaull, waits patiently, allowing him to choose for himself.

These toy kits are just one of the many resources Smart Start of Davie County offers residents and early childhood educators as it seeks to ensure quality childcare, education, health, and family support programs for all Davie County children birth to five.

Smart Start is North Carolina’s nationally recognized and award-winning early childhood initiative designed to ensure that young children enter school healthy and ready to succeed in school and beyond. Studies clearly show that the foundation for lifelong success in school and work is laid during these vital years.

MacCaull first learned about Smart Start and the toy-lending program from the daughter of a Smart Start employee when her older son Robbie, who is now a first-grader at William R. Davie Elementary School, was a baby. Since then, her sons have checked out every kit offered at least once. “I don’t know why we even buy toys because the boys love to check these out,” MacCaull said with a laugh. “It’s been so nice to borrow a kit for a week or two and not have to own so many toys at home.”

In fact, when the boys outgrow or get tired of their toys, the MacCaull family donates them to Smart Start to help create additional kits. “Checking out the kits has also broadened the boys’ horizons because they’ve selected things I wouldn’t have thought they would have been interested in.”

Imagination Library 
Tommy is enrolled in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program which provides any child living in Davie County one free, age-appropriate book per month from birth through their fifth birthday. The books are mailed to their home and addressed to the child. Provided in conjunction with the Dollywood Foundation, this program encourages literacy, parent/child interaction, and ultimately a successful start as the child enters school. Register for free at Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Group Connections Strengthen Community
The MacCaulls have also enjoyed the group connections activities which are hosted by the Parents as Teachers educators and open to all families with young children. These are held throughout the year with the focus of making social connections among parents and children. BlockFest, one of the more popular group connections, is a research-based exhibit that helps raise awareness of early math and science learning by offering hands-on block play experiences to families with young children. Other activities this summer included making ice cream, tie-dying, an outdoor story walk, and a cooking class.

Barrett Achor enjoys participating in the Blockfest group connection activities

Barrett Achor enjoys participating in the Blockfest group connection activities

The next group connection, Roll and Read!, will be held on September 20, in conjunction with Davie Recreation and Parks. Register by calling 336.753.8326.

Smart Start – Enrichment for all Young Families in Davie County
Smart Start Director Gena Taylor would love to have every family in Davie County with young children take advantage of these programs as well as the many others.

“I want our community to know that we are a non-profit that is here to create a Smart Start for children ages birth to five. Many people confuse us with Head Start or believe that we are a childcare center where children are kept during the day,” said Taylor. “Instead, our mission is to give families what they need to help raise and nurture their children to be successful in kindergarten. These services include programs to assist with health, early care and education, family support, literacy, and more.”

Daijah Emwanta participates in tie-dying Group Connections activity

Daijah Emwanta participates in tie-dying Group Connections activity

Smart Start of Davie – A One-Stop Shop of Free Resources
“We are a one-stop-shop where parents can find referrals to resources in our community, lists of childcare centers, and more,” said Taylor. “We work with our childcare centers to ensure high quality and offer training for teachers. We provide many programs for parents to be successful in the home with their children such as parenting classes, educational toys, and having quality books to create a love of reading prior to kindergarten.”

Programs funded by Smart Start of Davie County this year include:
● Child Care Health Consultant, a free health consulting service for legally operating childcare facilities
● Childcare Subsidy, a childcare scholarship program for families
● Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, an early literacy program for children
● Parents as Teachers, an intensive, in-home, parent/child education program
● Nurturing Parenting Program, a ten-week parenting class
● Strengthening the Foundations of Quality, a technical assistance program for childcare providers
● Early Childhood Resource Center, a free toy and resource lending library for parents and childcare providers
● Reach Out and Read, an early literacy program championed by local pediatricians
● WAGE$, an educational incentive program for childcare providers

Smart Start of Davie County also offers a wealth of trainings throughout the year that all early childhood educators, parents, and community members are invited to join. These trainings are free of charge to Davie County residents, unless otherwise noted.  Register at Davie Smart Start Training Programs.

Smart Start Early Childhood Education Specialist and Literacy Coordinator Katie Speer helps Tommy MacCaull check out his toy kit

Smart Start Early Childhood Education Specialist and Literacy Coordinator Katie Speer helps Tommy MacCaull check out his toy kit

Parents as Teachers
One noteworthy initiative is Parents as Teachers (PAT), a comprehensive home-visiting, parent education program. This free service is available to all families from prenatal to five years of age or kindergarten start. Smart Start of Davie County is a Blue-Ribbon Affiliate, meaning the program follows the essential requirements of the model, which provide minimum expectations for program design, infrastructure, and service delivery.

“Sometimes it would be nice if a baby, toddler or preschooler came with a manual,” said Susan McBride, family support coordinator & parent educator. “Welcoming a newborn into the world is an overwhelming and cherished experience. After being discharged from the hospital the feeling of “now what” sets in quickly for many new parents. The Parents as Teachers program can help ease that transition.”

The PAT program allows trained Parent Educators to build relationships with families and offer invaluable tools to ready children for school starting as early as prenatal visits.

Parent Educators check baby milestones, bring developmental activities for parents to learn and get ideas from, and answer any questions and concerns. During the bi-weekly visits, Parent Educators reflect, engage and connect with families on topics that are at the center of the family. These topics could be nutrition, safe sleep, language development, parenting values, postpartum depression, or transitions to just name a few. The personal visits the family receive are customized for the needs of each family.

A new enhancement to the PAT program is LENA technology. The technology is an innovative standard for measuring talk with children, which is a critical factor in early brain development. LENA uses a small wearable device — often referred to as a “talk pedometer” — combined with cloud-based software to deliver detailed feedback that helps adults make proven, sustainable increases in interactive talk with children. Parent Educators introduced LENA to families in the spring of 2019 and there are currently 14 children participating.

“Our goal is to build strong protective factors to keep families healthy, strong and resilient while preparing children for success,” McBride said.

To learn more about the programs offered by Smart Start of Davie County visit, or follow them on Facebook or Instagram. Smart Start is located at 1278 Yadkinville Road, Mocksville, NC 27028. Phone: (336) 751-2113.

Davie Students Sharpening Literacy Skills at 2019 Read to Achieve Camp

Teachers engage with Read to Achieve Camp students during the combined camp opening session.

Teachers engage with students during the combined camp opening session.

By Jeanna Baxter White
Can 16 days transform a child’s educational experience? One hundred forty-four Davie County students are finding out as they attend this summer’s Read to Achieve camp at Cornatzer Elementary School.

Read to Achieve camp is designed to help third-graders meet state requirements in reading to advance to the fourth grade. The intensive four-week camp also includes first and second graders who demonstrated the potential of reaching grade-level proficiency in reading with extra help in the summer. This year’s camp will serve 87 third-graders, 29 second-graders, and 28 first-graders.

Davie County’s camp is based on the A+Schools of North Carolina Program which combines interdisciplinary teaching and daily arts instruction to offer children multiple opportunities to develop creative, innovative ways of thinking, learning and showing what they know.  

Teresa Carter teaches a Hill Center reading session at 2019 Davie Read to Achieve Camp

Teresa Carter teaches Hill Center reading session

With $99,000 provided by the Mebane Foundation combined with state funds, students attending the 2019 Read to Achieve Camp will actively learn through visual arts, drama, music, and creative writing, as well as tailored instruction through Hill Center reading sessions and small group literacy circles. Each week has a different theme with most activities revolving around that topic to reinforce student understanding. Campers also learn techniques to reduce test anxiety.

This year, in addition to a traditional hands-on art class, third-graders will also benefit from a “maker space-style” STEM-based art class designed to provide hands-on learning for students and enhance their problem-solving skills. For example, during the first day of this new art class students were tasked with creating Goldilocks using various plastic pieces. Once Goldilocks was complete they created a bed from popsicle sticks and tape. The bed had to be strong enough to support Goldilocks.  At the end of the assignment, they wrote out directions explaining how it was done, making it another literacy activity.

“Early introduction to STEM-focused activities and procedures can help them prepare for the rigors and expectations of a 21st-century workforce as well as prepare them for possible high school paths,” said Jeremy Brooks, camp director.

Julie Marklin leads a small group literacy session during Davie’s 2019 Read to Achieve Camp

Julie Marklin leads a small group literacy session

Jeremy Brooks says the students love the multiple pathways we offer them throughout the day. “The learning environment is always changing. We keep things interesting and dynamic from arrival to dismissal. All of our different activities have literacy embedded in them. Kids don’t realize that they are actually working on reading and writing because they are having too much fun! From reading scripts in “theater” class to following  a set of written directions in maker-space, they are always sharpening literacy skills.”

Past results have been inspiring. During last summer’s camp, 32% of the county’s non-proficient third-graders reached the required reading achievement score to move on to fourth grade, and an additional 25 the campers passed the Read to Achieve test in the months following the camp. A remarkable 85% showed positive growth on one or more reading assessments. Furthermore, 85% of the first-graders and 80% of the 2nd-graders demonstrated significant growth over their initial scores on formative evaluations. All of the students achieved a substantial increase in confidence, engagement, and stamina in approaching new learning experiences.

The innovative nature of Davie County’s camp, as well as its high success rate, has garnered notice from the North Carolina Department of Instruction as well as school systems across the state.

Karen Henson guides students through a Hill Center reading session

Karen Henson guides students through a Hill Center reading session

Davie County was one of six districts chosen from across the state to serve as a spotlight district during the Read to Achieve Summit in Greensboro. Jennifer Lynde, DCS chief academic officer, and Christy Cornatzer, camp curriculum coordinator, had the opportunity to share about the different aspects of the camp.

“During the state’s Read to Achieve Summit, we had a wonderful opportunity to share how our district’s RTA summer camp has demonstrated significant gains in student achievement,” said Lynde. “Specifically, we were asked to focus on the hiring and retention of highly qualified reading camp teachers from year to year and practices that we’ve used during our camp that have resulted in positive outcomes.  We were able to provide practical resources for other RTA summer camp leaders and share ideas about what we believe has made our camp successful.”

DCS also hosted the Piedmont-Triad Read to Achieve meeting. “The teachers from our camp were able to lead around 50 district RTA summer camp leaders and representatives from their teams through each of the components of our camp,” explained Cornatzer. “We’ve also had several districts reach out requesting our schedule and asking for suggestions of how they too can integrate the arts.”

Students learn about rhythm and sound in a music and theatre session

Students learn about rhythm and sound in a music and theatre session

What Does a Day at DCS Read to Achieve Camp Look Like?
The structure of the camp creates a lot of excitement. Students aren’t used to singing, dancing, and rapping during a regular school day.

The camp day begins at 8:00 a.m. with a short combined session focused on goal setting for the day. Students are divided into small groups with an average ratio of fourteen students per teacher except when students are in Hill RAP sessions at the four to one ratio. The student’s day is divided between Hill Rap sessions, writing to learn sessions, art and reading sessions, testing stamina sessions, music/theatre, and verbal expression sessions, and diagnostic reading clinic sessions. Each session lasts approximately forty-five minutes. Each day ends at 2:45 p.m

Each grade level’s lessons have a theme, and those themes are carried over to all aspects of camp. The first graders are learning about families while the second graders are studying communities. The third graders are racing across North Carolina with units about the mountains, piedmont, and coast which will give them advanced preparation for studying these topics in fourth-grade science and social studies.

Voluntary “informances” (impromptu performances that require no rehearsals) at the end of each day allow students to further build confidence as they show their best work and share with each other what they’ve learned.

At the end of the fourth week, third-grade students will be allowed to retake the RTA Reading test, which is a form of the EOG.

Julie Marklin works with students during an art session at 2019 Read to Achieve Camp

Julie Marklin works with students during an art session

Innovative, Highly Effective Teachers the Key to Success
Developing highly effective students requires innovative, highly effective teachers. Jeremy Brooks says the heart of Davie’s RTA camp is its staff of passionate, dedicated educators. Each has been trained in the A+ Schools Arts Integrated Instruction program and has personally completed each and every assignment the students complete. In addition, those conducting Hill RAP sessions have previous experience teaching Hill reading methodologies. Most are RTA camp veterans who return each year because they are excited about the growth and success these students are experiencing, often for the first time.

“One of the reasons teachers like working here is because we don’t box them in. We go ahead and let them try new things, as long as they match the philosophy of the camp, which is a real selling point for teachers. Sometimes they don’t get to do that during the school year because it is so rigid with what must be taught by a given point.”

Kim Brooks, who teaches first grade at Cornatzer, feels honored to have been a part of the Read to Achieve camp since the beginning. “There are several reasons I keep coming back each summer, but the #1 reason is these kids! It is truly amazing to watch the transformation that takes place within each student in just 16 days. It’s about more than just passing a test. Our Read to Achieve camp (family)  is about raising students’ self-esteem to give them the confidence they need to succeed. We are very fortunate to have the leeway to teach students by integrating the Arts into our daily instruction. This helps them to see the different ways in which they learn. Watching their energy levels change within the classroom to become active learners and leaders is a sight to behold! As an educator, it is what you wish for every student that ever enters a school building!”

Tami Daniel works with students during an art session

Jeremy Brooks is also excited to have six new teachers as part of this year’s staff. “We have great teachers, but it’s always nice to bring in new ideas because we never want the camp to get stagnant. Although we know that we are doing good things we are always looking for ways to do things even better.”

Megan Cooper, who teaches 3rd grade at Shady Grove Elementary, chose to participate in RTA camp for the first because of her love for helping children and the desire to continue to learn and grow as an educator. “I heard such amazing reviews from teachers, parents, and students about camp. I also wanted to participate to learn from amazing veteran teachers across the county and from the A+ fellows that came in to train us. I was told it is an amazing experience and they were right! The staff here is like a family, so welcoming and fun to work with. I have learned so much from the teachers, the students, and the training we received. The camp is not like a job, it is time to help our students and have fun while doing it. I am excited to take what I have learned and implement it into my everyday classroom culture throughout the school year. Camp has been such a refreshing reminder of why I became a teacher. My biggest take away from camp is that it is important to make learning fun while helping my students.”

The Davie County educators who are teaching at this year’s Read to Achieve camp include:

  • Jeremy Brooks – Camp Director (North Davie)
  • Christy Cornatzer – Curriculum Coordinator (Cornatzer)
  • Suzie Alonso – Hill Center (Cornatzer)
  • Kerry Blackwelder – Hill Center (Cooleemee)
  • Kim Brooks – Reading Coach (Cornatzer)
  • Debbie Brown – 1st/2nd Teacher Assistant (Mocksville)
  • Mary Lynn Bullins – Reading Coach (Cornatzer)
  • Teresa Carter – Hill Center (Cooleemee)
  • Amy Chappell – 3rd Grade Art (Mocksville/Cornatzer)
  • Molly Connell – 2nd Grade (William R. Davie)
  • Megan Cooper – Reading Coach (Shady Grove)
  • Lori Culler – Reading Coach (South Davie)
  • Leigh Anne Davis – Reading Coach (Pinebrook)
  • Shannon Eggleston – 1st Grade (William R. Davie)
  • Michael Errickson – 3rd Grade Music (Cornatzer)
  • Angelina Etter – 1st Grade Hill Center (Mocksville)
  • Suzie Hecht – 2nd Grade (Mocksville)
  • Karen Henson – Hill Center (Mocksville)
  • Jennie Kimel – 1st Grade (William R. Davie)
  • Julie Marklin – 3rd Grade Art (Mocksville)
  • Rachel Morse – Teacher Assistant (Cornatzer)
  • Brenda Mosko – Music (South Davie/William Ellis)
  • Anissa Nixon – Teacher Assistant (Mocksville)
  • Erin Penley – 1st and 2nd Grade Music (Pinebrook)
  • Alma Rosas – Hill Center (William R. Davie)
  • Kaitlin Sizemore –Teacher Assistant (Davie High)
  • Amy Spade – 2nd Grade (County)
  • Susan Spear – 3rd Grade Art (Cornatzer)
  • Lori Wyrick – Receptionist (Cornatzer)

DavieLEADS Brings Letterland to Faith-Based Pre-K Classrooms Across Davie County

Deitre Junker, preschool teacher at First United Methodist Church in Mocksville leads students in Letterland Parade

Deitre Junker, preschool teacher at First United Methodist Church in Mocksville leads students in Letterland Parade

By Jeanna Baxter White
As the opening notes of the Letterland theme song began to play, fifty excited preschoolers dressed as their favorite Letterland character began to march in a slow circle around the churchyard. Annie Apple led the parade followed by Bouncy Ben, Clever Cat, and all of their fellow Letterland characters.

The students in Mocksville’s First United Methodist Church’s half-day preschool program were celebrating Letterland Day and the completion of the entire Letterland program, from Annie Apple to ZigZag Zebra.

“We went through a different letter each week and ended last week so today’s parade commemorated their experience,” said Allison Gupton, the preschool’s director. “Letterland has really helped a lot of them. We’ve seen so much growth and development, often from knowing nothing to knowing the characters, the songs, the sounds the letters make, and recognizing the letters. It’s been really neat to watch them evolve from thinking this is a character, like in a TV show, to knowing that it means something.”

Allison Gupton, preschool teacher at First United Methodist Church in Mocksville leads students in Letterland parade

Allison Gupton, preschool director at First United Methodist Church in Mocksville leads students in Letterland parade

Letterland is a phonics-based program that teaches students how to read, write, and spell. It is a well-established program for students from preschool to 2nd grade, with a carefully constructed curriculum for children at each grade level. The program has friendly ‘pictogram’ 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.

Davie County Schools (DCS) began using this innovative literacy program for kindergarten through 2nd grade in 2004, and in preschool around 2007; but over time, materials wore out or were lost and newer teachers were not trained in the methodology.

Sherri Robinson, Pre-K teacher at Hillsdale Baptist Preschool watches as Stephanie Nelson, DCS preschool collaborative teacher, talks to students in “Peter Puppy” letterland costume.

Sherri Robinson, Pre-K teacher at Hillsdale Baptist Preschool watches as Stephanie Nelson, DCS preschool collaborative teacher in Peter Puppy Letterland costume engages students

When Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, and representatives from Davie County Schools began holding roundtable discussions to determine ways to move the needle in early childhood literacy, they quickly recognized the value of Letterland and decided to revitalize its usage.

The program became an essential piece of DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), the Mebane Foundation’s five-year, $2.5 million grant to improve kindergarten readiness and to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

From 2016-2018, the Mebane Foundation provided Letterland materials, software, and professional development for NC Pre-K to 2nd-grade classrooms in Davie County. This year, the program was expanded to include half-day faith-based programs, as well. Six preschool programs from the following churches participated: Bethlehem United Methodist Church, Center United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church of Mocksville, First United Methodist Church, Hillsdale Baptist Church, and Hillsdale Methodist Church.  Each received a Letterland for the Early Years curriculum kit, literacy training for their staff, and onsite coaching to support their literacy curriculum.

“One of the things we realized was that we had to create a continuum of educational interventions that started early and extended through the third grade,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Foundation. “That’s the big difference with the DavieLEADS grant. We went down into the pre-k world. Normally, we would get 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.”

Preschool teahers Donna Koontz (left) and Deitre Junker (right) with their class of 4-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville

Preschool teachers Donna Koontz (left) and Deitre Junker (right) with their class of 4-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

The approach has been successful. At the end of DavieLEADS’  first year, kindergarten readiness in Davie County has improved from 71 percent to 80 percent based on the Dial-4 screening assessment.

“It’s a fabulous idea to introduce Letterland at this level so that when the children get to kindergarten they don’t have to learn an entirely different concept,” said Sarah Watkins, preschool director at Hillsdale Baptist Church. “They were already learning the alphabet here in our program, but it’s even better if the program we are teaching is consistent with what is used in the elementary schools.”

“One of the coolest things has been when I’m talking to a child outside of class and they reference Peter Puppy or another character and some of the things they have learned. That is a highlight, it’s just wonderful!”

Preschool teachers Sherri Hendrix (left) and Susan Myers (right) with their class of 3 and 4-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

“As a private non-profit, Letterland is not something we could afford. Having the Mebane Foundation provide this training and the curriculum packet has been invaluable,” she added.  She hopes to find the money to purchase additional materials so that Letterland can be introduced to the younger classes next year.

First United Methodist was able to purchase a second Early Years curriculum kit which is being shared by the younger classes. “The children will be getting the foundation in the twos, we will build on it through the fours and then the possibilities are endless as they enter elementary school,” said Gupton.

“The children have been so excited and we’ve been pleased with their progress and what they’ve learned thanks to this partnership with the Mebane Foundation. It’s been a true blessing to be able to do this. The kids, the grownups, everyone enjoys Letterland, but most importantly, the kids are learning.”

Preschool teachers Susan Wall (left) and Holly Sinopoli (right) with their class of 3-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

Preschool teachers Susan Wall (left) and Holly Sinopoli (right) with their class of 3-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

In fact, many of Gupton’s students love the program so much that they asked for it for Christmas. “I was texting parents where we ordered our stuff from and it became a Christmas list item.”

Stephanie Nelson, DCS preschool collaborative teacher, said that coordinating the curriculum between private and public preschools ensures the same high-quality instruction no matter the preschool setting.

Additionally, using Letterland across the board provides all of the preschool students with the same frame of reference and eases their transition into kindergarten because they are already familiar with the Letterland characters.

“When they see Letterland again in kindergarten it makes them feel good by building familiarity when everything else is so new and gives them just a little boost,” said Nelson. “It’s a fabulous program, very multi-sensory, very appropriate for young children. Letters are so abstract, but when you link them to a character and a story, they become easier to understand.”

Preschool teachers Susan Domanski (left) and Amanda Harris (right) with their class of 2-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

Preschool teachers Susan Domanski (left) and Amanda Harris (right) with their class of 2-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

“When most people think about children identifying letters, they think about identifying the shape and saying the name of it,” Nelson explained. “But really the most important part of this for preschoolers is to identify the sound, whether or not they can attach it to a letter.  We teach children to train their ear to hear things in a different way which helps build phonological awareness.”

For Sherri Robinson, who teaches the pre-k class at Hillsdale Baptist Preschool, the transition to Letterland has been easy. She had already been teaching a similar program and all three of her children used Letterland in elementary school so she was already familiar with it.

“I love the program. I think it’s fabulous for the kids,” said Robinson, who has also taught kindergarten. “They love the characters which provides so much more meaning for them. Letterland is very engaging and keeps their interest. The materials are great! I like the big letter cards and the way that they can trace them with their finger. The program has songs to make it more playful. I also love the kinesthetic aspect of having a hand motion with each letter that allows children who can’t sit still to move. Letterland is the total package.”

Preschool teachers Susan Domanski (left) and Amanda Harris (right) with their class of 2-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

Preschool teachers Susan Domanski (left) and Amanda Harris (right) with their class of 2-year-olds at FUMC preschool in Mocksville wearing Letterland character costumes

“I love early literacy, I think it is very, very important for a child’s development. They are like little sponges, the more you can engage them the more they just soak it up.”

Letterland has been a huge help,” said Deitre Junker, who has been teaching preschool at First United Methodist for 19 years. “I’ve been using something similar but this incorporates more of what they need in kindergarten. The kids have taken to it so well and love it. Every time we start playing the song or doing the motions they love it. All of the children know the characters and know the letters and will be able to transition easily into using the same program in kindergarten.”

Lucas Crotts, a student in Ms. Junker’s class at First United Methodist Church Preschool wearing a “Zig-Zag Zebra” Letterland character costume

Lucas Crotts was happy to demonstrate.“I love Clever Cat and ZigZag Zebra, they are my favorite Letterland characters. I learned them from Mrs. Deitre.” He quickly went on to name every character and letter in the alphabet and made its sound and showed each hand motion.  

His favorite thing about Letterland? “I like to learn about all of the characters and I love to get my coloring books and draw them.”

Junker believes kindergarten won’t be such a shock to them and they will be ready and ahead of the game. “I also think it could help them academically in the long run.”

“Parents love it! Some of the children have siblings already in school doing Letterland and the parents love that we are starting it here, too. The siblings are having conversations about Letterland. It’s a win-win for everyone!”

Cognitive ToyBox – Achieving Early Literacy in Davie County

Felicia McClamrock, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie Preschool watches as preschool student Colt Sexton completes an assessment with Cognitive ToyBox

By Jeanna Baxter White

Davie County Schools is continuing to make strides in addressing key challenges to kindergarten readiness. Through DavieLEADS, a partnership with the Mebane Foundation, Davie County Schools has had the unique opportunity to pilot solutions that can move the needle in early childhood education.

From the outset, Peggy Nuckolls, director of preschool services, and Stephanie Nelson, preschool collaborative teacher, identified the need for better assessment tools. In seeking an assessment tool that was less subjective and more objective, they chose to pilot Cognitive ToyBox, a game-based assessment platform to measure school readiness. Their goal was to increase the reliability of student assessments across the county.  Now in their second year of using the tool, both administrators and teachers have found it to be effective in addressing their assessment needs.

Josey Redinger, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie Preschool watches as preschool student Alan Reyes works with Cognitive ToyBox

Josey Redinger, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie Preschool watches as preschool student Alan Reyes works with Cognitive ToyBox

“Through Cognitive ToyBox, we have an unprecedented level of individualized data across language and literacy, math and social-emotional development that we can use to improve instruction and individualization on an ongoing basis,” said Nuckolls.

Cognitive ToyBox enables direct assessment of early language, literacy, math, and social-emotional skills. Using a touchscreen device, students play one assessment game per week for an average of five minutes, and teachers have access to NC standards-aligned reports that support them in planning for instruction and for supporting individual student needs. For the 2018-2019 school year, the goal was to familiarize teachers with the data-driven instructional planning opportunities available through using this assessment data.

Central Davie PreSchool student Serenity Rose works with Cognitive ToyBox

Central Davie preschool student Serenity Rose works with Cognitive ToyBox

Key to this model was the strong collaboration between Nelson and the school system’s NC Pre-K teachers. Nelson also coached a subset of NC Pre-K teachers located in childcare programs. They discussed how to review and use their assessment data to differentiate learning opportunities based on children’s progress.

“Throughout the course of the year, teachers became more comfortable with using the reports on their own to make decisions on small group instruction on a weekly basis,” shared Nelson.

“I really enjoy using Cognitive ToyBox in my classroom with my students,” said Felicia McClamrock, who teaches NC Pre-K at Central Davie and was one of the three DCS teachers who piloted the program last year. “It is a great program for our children, and they enjoy using it. It is also easy for them to use. The program helps me know what level my students are on, what they know, and what they need to work on. It helps me to know who needs more individual attention in certain areas, and I learned that some of the students that I thought had mastered certain skills were the ones that needed the extra help.”

Felicia McClamrock, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie Preschool watches as preschool student Serenity Rose works with Cognitive ToyBox

Felicia McClamrock, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie Preschool watches as preschool student Serenity Rose works with Cognitive ToyBox

“I like that it is aligned with what I am teaching and it helps me spend less time doing assessments, and I can use the data from the assessments and get exactly what I need for meetings, report cards and teaching in the classroom,” McClamrock added.

The time-savings stems from a reduction in typing and paperwork. Traditionally, teachers would need to write notes on each child and then type them into a digital system after class. Cognitive ToyBox’s game-based assessments automate that process by automatically collecting the data and organizing it into reports and recommendations for teachers.

In addition to the time she saves using the assessments, Josey Redinger, who teaches at Central Davie and was part of the pilot program, also appreciates the teacher-led portion of the platform. “It allows me to reinforce concepts again and again.”

Josey Redinger, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie preschool watches as pre-k student Zakoiya Summers works with Cognitive ToyBox

Josey Redinger, NC Pre-K teacher at Central Davie preschool watches as preschool student Zakoiya Summers works with Cognitive ToyBox

Meredith Koeval, NC Pre-K teacher at Shady Grove Elementary, agrees that Cognitive ToyBox has the potential to be a good tool for assessments and said she appreciates that it keeps data all in one place and tends to be faster than her own teacher-created assessments. “This tool helps me keep more data on students throughout the year so I can track their progress better. Sometimes, though, I can tell children are just randomly guessing when they complete the independent portion of the game, which does not lead to an accurate assessment. When I am working hands on doing the teacher-led portion, I do not have that issue.”

Administrators also found value from the platform. “We have had some differentiation of instruction challenges in the past year, and the Cognitive ToyBox reports helped us to keep abreast of progress towards our school readiness goals,” said Nuckolls.

The data has also enabled the DCS team to improve their instruction at the program level. “The data has been valuable in conversations with teachers about student growth, state standards, and assessment practices,” said Nelson.

In preparation for Year 3 of DavieLEADS, district leaders are looking into ways to ease the transition for students between preschool and kindergarten. Cognitive ToyBox data is being incorporated into other student assessment data that will be shared with kindergarten teachers over the summer. Kindergarten teachers can then use the reports and recommendations to get a head start in planning for the upcoming year.

“We could not have asked for a better partner than DCS,” said Tammy Kwan, the co-founder, and CEO of Cognitive ToyBox. “Thanks to their ongoing feedback over the past two years, Cognitive ToyBox has been considerably improved, not only for NC Pre-K providers but for all early childhood education providers.”

Kids Visit Davie Elementary Schools During Pre-K Transition Field Trips – DavieLEADS

By Jeanna Baxter White

The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round” …. Just ask the NC Pre-K students from Almost Home Child Care who recently rode a school bus to William R. Davie Elementary School for a tour as they prepare to enter kindergarten this fall.  For many, it was the first time on a bus and the first time in an elementary school.

“The transition from preschool to kindergarten can be one of the most significant events a young child experiences,” said Stephanie Nelson, preschool collaborative teacher for Davie County Schools, who organized the field trips.  “Many emotions characterize this moment; excitement, fear, happiness, anxiety, surprise and a sense of being overwhelmed are a few of the emotions children and families might feel. However, with careful advance preparation and planning, this transition can be a successful milestone for the child. DavieLEADS is giving thoughtful and deliberate attention to this process in many ways.  One way is by creating these transition field trips for students attending NC Pre-K classrooms that are located in child care settings.”

DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), is a five-year early literacy initiative created through a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation to improve kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading proficiency.

Through the initiative, collaborative work with NC Pre-K classrooms located in private child care settings has been progressing with the goal of creating educational opportunities equitable to the educational opportunities the students in public school NC Pre-K classrooms receive. While all NC Pre-K classrooms, regardless of location, meet the same state guidelines and provide the same curriculum, students attending NC Pre-K in public school settings get an opportunity to gain familiarity and comfort in the elementary school setting before attending kindergarten.

The field trip included a tour of the school conducted by William R. Davie NC Pre-K teachers, Margaret Steele and Alisa Allen, and the opportunity to join their class for a story and a Letterland activity in the gym.

“We hope that when the students come back next year and see a familiar face within the staff, it will really help,” Nelson said. “The teachers and kids have loved it, and the administrators of the child care centers have been very thankful for this opportunity through the grant from the Mebane Foundation.”

The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round!

Sabrina Lever, an NC Pre-K teacher at Almost Home Child Care, said, “I value that our Pre-K students have this opportunity to explore an elementary school and the kindergarten classrooms. The whole experience of the children getting to ride a bus, visit the cafeteria, gymnasium, media center, and computer lab was educational and extremely fun for them. Now they can visualize Kindergarten when we are talking about it. This experience has helped them developmentally by preparing them for what’s to come. They know more of what to expect and now have a better understanding of what it means to be a Kindergartner.”

In addition to familiarizing the students with elementary school, the tours provided another opportunity for the NC Pre-K teachers from the private sites to connect with their counterparts at the schools to build the professional community.

The participating NC Pre-K classrooms included Almost Home Child Care, LLC, Kountry Kids Learning Center & Preschool, Mocksville Head Start, Mudpies Child Development Center, and Young Children’s Learning Center. The participating elementary schools and public NC Pre-K classrooms included Cooleemee, Cornatzer, Mocksville, Pinebrook, and William R. Davie Elementary Schools.

The students who have completed their field trip have been excited to see their elementary school.  During one recent field trip to Pinebrook Elementary School, a student from Mocksville Head Start excitedly told the bus driver, Susan Pifer, “This is the best day of my life!.”