UNC Charlotte’s Project ENRICH Provides Valuable Clinical Experience for Future Teachers

By Jeanna Baxter White

Rouisha Slavenburg, undergraduate teacher candidate in the Elementary Education program teaching and reviewing letter-sounds during a Sound Partners lesson with two students at Niner University Elementary School SRC.
Rouisha Slavenburg, undergraduate teacher candidate in the Elementary Education program teaching and reviewing letter-sounds during a Sound Partners lesson  at Niner University Elementary School SRC.

Mebane Foundation Founder, Allen Mebane, believed that to achieve our nation’s greatest potential, it must ensure its young people receive a top-tier education.

Knowing that teacher quality is one of the most important school-related factors influencing student achievement, the Foundation cultivates partnerships with leading colleges of education to fund transformative training opportunities for both in-service and pre-service teachers. 

At the top of the list is the UNC Charlotte Cato College of Education. Since 2019, the Foundation has invested $50,000 annually in the University’s research-based summer reading camp, which gives local elementary students access to incredible resources and literacy support, offers area teachers the opportunity to learn and practice highly effective evidence-based techniques for teaching reading, and provides the University’s teacher candidates (TCs) with valuable clinical experience. 

A student at Niner University Elementary School SRC practices reading during a Sound Partners lesson.
A student at Niner University Elementary School SRC practices reading during a Sound Partners lesson.

Since its inception in 2016, the summer reading camp has served more than 300 elementary-grade students across seven schools to mitigate summer learning loss by providing access to evidence-based instruction in foundational reading skills and other literacy learning opportunities. Involved faculty, Drs. Kristen Beach, Erin Washburn, Miranda Fitzgerald, and Samantha Gesel have trained more than 35 in-service educators and 20 College of Education TCs and graduate students to provide and support evidence-based reading instruction.

The camp focuses on supporting reading instruction during the summer months, so historically there have been limited opportunities for training and supporting TCs, whose work in schools primarily transpires during the academic year. However, other programs, such as Project CERTIFIES (Co-PIs Drs. Gesel and Washburn) funded by the Belk Foundation since 2021, have taken the lead in offering TCs extended clinical experiences during the academic year. Experiences have included a semester of instructional coaching support while TCs volunteered to tutor a child in reading intervention. 

This year, a new program is going a step further. Project ENRICH (Engaging Niners in a Reading Intervention and Collaboration Hub) will enable unprecedented enrichment experiences for tomorrow’s educators while simultaneously supporting the reading achievement of underperforming and at-risk elementary students.

Savannah Paguio, undergraduate teacher candidate in the Elementary Education program during the book reading component of a Sound Partners lesson  at Niner University Elementary School SRC.

“Our goal is to create a hub for TC enrichment, in partnership with local schools, where TCs can strengthen their skill in delivering evidence-based reading instruction and strengthen collaboration with in-service teaching professionals,” said Dr. Beach, associate professor of Special Education.“Project ENRICH will serve as a model for improving the reading skills of elementary-grade students, mitigating summer learning loss (and COVID learning loss in 2020 and 2021), training TCs on evidence-based, scientifically valid reading programs, and guiding TCs as they develop additional teaching and leadership skills.”  

Thrilled to support a program that will build more robust clinical experiences that teach the next generation of educators about best practices, the Foundation quickly provided $60,000 to fund its first year. 

Caroline Owens, recent UNC Charlotte graduate in the Elementary Education program during the book reading component of a Sound Partners lesson  at Niner University Elementary School SRC.

“Allen Mebane’s primary goal in establishing the Foundation was to be a catalyst for innovation in early childhood literacy.  He also believed strongly that a teacher is a child’s most precious resource when it comes to succeeding in the classroom.  Additionally, he believed that real-time, real-world experience for teachers being trained in the latest methodologies to foster literacy is of the utmost importance. The Foundation’s relationship with UNC Charlotte Cato College of Education has proven to be exactly what he was searching for in a world-class partner, ” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. 

Teacher Candidate enrichment will occur in two key areas:

  • Extended tutoring opportunities in the Summer Reading Camp for TCs who were previously trained to implement evidence-based reading interventions as part of Project CERTIFIES, as well as TCs newly trained for ENRICH. 
  • New mentorship opportunities for TCs will begin in summer and transpire across the academic year and in partnership with in-service teachers previously engaged in the Summer Reading Camp or recommended by SRC faculty.
Pauline Vane, undergraduate teacher candidate in the Elementary Education program during the Sentence Reading component of a Sound Partners lesson at Niner University Elementary School SRC.

Developing Mebane Summer and Academic Year Scholars and Mebane Mentors

The year-long project began in Summer 2022 with the development of 13 Mebane Summer Scholars who were recruited from a pool of 23 TCs enrolled in the Reading and Elementary Education or Special Education Departments at UNC Charlotte.  Existing school partnerships and tutoring infrastructure were leveraged for Mebane Summer Scholars to provide evidence-based reading instruction and/or enrichment to elementary-aged students who read below grade level expectations. 

Additionally, Mebane Summer Scholars participated in a series of professional learning and mentoring opportunities with a Mebane Summer Mentor teacher, an in-service teacher who also had experience providing evidence-based reading tutoring at one of the three Summer Reading Camps (SRC). Mebane Summer Scholars valued the time spent with their in-service teacher mentors. 

As one Mebane Summer Scholar shared, “Being able to debrief after the end of each week and really put thought into my own personal ‘glows and grows’ and ask questions…about my teaching was really helpful. There were a lot of times where I doubted myself, and my mentor encouraged me and gave me great feedback on my work.” This kind of feedback and opportunity to reflect on instruction is a key driver of TCs’ professional growth.

During the 2022-2023 academic year, at least ten Mebane Scholars and five Mebane Mentors will engage in the year-long mentorship program.  Academic year Mebane Scholars are TCs in their last year of the teacher preparation program who were recruited from the pool of 13 Mebane Summer Scholars and other TCs who participated as SRC instructors at one of the three SRC sites.  Academic year Mebane Mentors were recruited from the pool of 5 summer mentors and teachers from partnership schools.  

Scholars and Mentors will have opportunities for additional training in evidence-based reading instruction and will engage in continued collaboration throughout the academic year to strengthen the Scholars’ teaching skills, sense of identity, confidence, and leadership skills. 

Keirra Crosland, 1st grade teacher at Niner University Elementary School sits with her students practicing long vowel sounds in a Sound Partners lesson at Niner University Elementary School SRC. She is serving as a Project ENRICH academic year mentor for teacher candidates.
Keirra Crosland, 1st grade teacher at Niner University Elementary School practicing long vowel sounds in a Sound Partners lesson at Niner University Elementary School SRC. She is serving as a Project ENRICH academic year mentor for teacher candidates.

Enrichment in the Reading Intervention and Collaboration Hub

Mebane Scholars and Mentors will engage in the reading intervention and collaboration hub in several ways. First, across 4 to 5 weeks in Summer 2022, each Mebane Summer Scholar provided approximately 100 hours of reading intervention to elementary-grade students identified as reading below grade level via face-to-face or virtual tutoring, using at least one evidence-based reading program (Sound Partners or Quick Reads).  Mebane Summer Scholars participated in professional development training on trauma-informed social-emotional learning and received weekly support from their matched Mebane Mentor teacher as they implemented instruction and several opportunities for discussion and reflection about their teaching practice. 

Each Mebane Summer Mentor provided 50 hours of summer reading intervention to elementary-grade students and an estimated 50 hours of mentorship. 

During the academic year, Mebane Scholars and Mentors will also engage in extended enrichment and mentorship activities. The time investment for academic year activities for each Scholar will be approximately four hours per week (232 hours per Scholar). Time investment for Mentors will be about one hour per week (136 total hours per Mentor).

Izoma Mua, undergraduate teacher candidate in the Dual Elementary and Special Education Program, and her student engaging in a Pictionary review game to review the CVC and CVCC patterns of focus during a Sound Partners lesson.

The Impact 

Program organizers anticipate the direct impact of Project ENRICH at three levels, as summarized by Dr. Beach. “First, we will strengthen TCs’ knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy for implementing evidence-based reading interventions to students reading below grade level while providing paid employment opportunities in their field of study. We will also support TCs’ sense of teaching identity and belongingness to the profession through extended collaboration with in-service teacher Mentors. Additionally, we will enhance their pre-service learning experiences, filling in gaps in knowledge and providing leadership opportunities. Next, we will strengthen in-service teacher capacity to implement and coach the implementation of evidence-based reading instruction. We will also develop mentorship skills. Last, we will improve reading outcomes for participating elementary-grade students.”  

Dr. Beach also shared expected collateral program impacts. “Investing in enriching TC training has the potential to improve their impact on student reading achievement within their first years of teaching. Similarly, continuing to invest in in-service teacher capacity to deliver evidence-based reading interventions can potentially mitigate reading risk for any student enrolled in trained teachers’ classrooms. In addition, developing in-service teachers’ capacity to serve as intervention coaches provides leadership experiences to teachers and enhances school capacity for sustaining strong implementation of evidence-based interventions. Developing mentors also provides TCs with rich network connections that can be leveraged on the job hunt or while climbing the first-year-of-teaching learning curve.” 

About the Cato College of Education at UNC Charlotte

Since the Cato College of Education’s inception, future educators have harnessed their passion to positively impact the trajectory of the students’ lives. The school prepares teachers, counselors, and school leaders who provide access to high quality education to students from diverse backgrounds. Each year over 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students enroll at the Cato College of Education at UNC Charlotte. 

Elementary Students Blossom at Innovative UNC Charlotte Summer Reading Camp

By Jeanna Baxter White

Tilly Fredette is engaged in a read-aloud titled "Ants" by Melissa Stewart during a SOLID Start lesson as they explored ways in which ants change their habitats.
Tilly Fredette is engaged in a read-aloud titled “Ants” by Melissa Stewart during a SOLID Start lesson as they explored ways in which ants change their habitats.

By Jeanna Baxter White

Summer is an opportune time to offer children programs that provide academic support, enrichment opportunities, and social and emotional growth. Given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the past two school years, this summer’s added support was more important than ever.

At Niner University Elementary (NUE) in West Charlotte, 51 rising 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-grade students blossomed through a research-based, multi-pronged approach to summer learning: foundational reading support, integrated science and literacy support, and a wide range of enrichment activities. 

Niner, which opened its doors during the 2020-2021 school year, is a public school developed, supported, and operated by top education experts from UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education. It’s the sixth lab school to emerge across the state in response to the North Carolina General Assembly’s UNC Laboratory School Initiative. The initiative was created to provide enhanced educational programming to students in low-performing schools. Lab schools allow teacher preparation programs to utilize and promote innovative approaches that can be transformative for struggling students while also providing the next generation of teachers and administrators with hands-on experience in the field. The goal is to offer a model for other North Carolina public schools to follow to achieve similar successes. 

Amanda Brown is working on sentence reading to support reading fluency during a Sound Partners lesson
Amanda Brown is working on sentence reading to support reading fluency during a Sound Partners lesson.

Creating a Successful Model for Early Education

“A goal at the UNC Charlotte Cato School of Education is to build stronger more robust clinical experiences and to teach the next generation of educators about best practices. These literacy innovation leaders are going to be doing this work prior to their year-long internship and student teaching,” said Brandon Prescott, director of development for the Cato College of Education. “Our other focus is research. We want to be a model for other people to come out and see and learn from us, and then they can scale it to individual schools or a whole district.” 

While the University has hosted a summer reading camp for the last six years, opening Niner significantly expands its ability to support local elementary students, offer area teachers the opportunity to practice new evidence-based programs for teaching reading that they can apply in their own classrooms, and provide the University’s future educators with valuable clinical experience. 

Impressed by the camp’s innovative, evidence-based approach to summer learning, The Mebane Foundation began supporting the program last year, and was pleased this year to provide a grant of $50,000 to support both the original camp for students at Windsor Park and Oakhurst Elementary Schools and the new program at Niner.   

“The UNC Charlotte Cato School of Education partnership offers the Foundation the opportunity to leverage its resources in multiple ways that are true to its mission,” said Mebane Foundation President Larry Colbourne. “First and foremost, the summer program affords younger students the opportunity to access incredible resources and literacy support, while at the same time the investment supports the important work of the College to expose pre-service and great in-service teachers to different interventions in a practical setting. Finally, through this program, the Foundation is able to extend its reach into the literacy space as other teachers and systems observe what’s happening at Cato. We love this multi-faceted approach, especially with this world-class university!”

Niner’s curriculum and trauma-informed approach to education were developed through the collective work of dozens of UNC Charlotte (UNCC)  faculty and staff from across campus, and emphasize both academics and social-emotional growth.  

The school’s small class size allows for robust individualized instruction and literacy interventions and the opportunity to test new strategies. This year, Niner will begin to incorporate pre-service teachers. A cohort of 20 will start in January to implement literacy interventions as part of the daily instruction. Those students will then be the camp instructors next summer and will return in the fall as part of their methods courses. 

Rachel Butler is working on word reading to support decoding during a Sound Partners lesson.    

To address students’ social-emotional needs, all staff members have been trained to recognize and respond to children impacted by traumatic stress, and Niner hired a social worker and UNCC social work intern as well as a school guidance counselor to support students and families. Interns from the UNCC School of Counseling program provide onsite play therapy to students throughout the year. The school also established the HeART Team (Helping and Responding to Trauma), which is made up of staff members who can immediately support a student who is struggling and help them to reset and remain in the classroom. 

Niner ended its first year with 70 students, 51 of which chose to attend the optional summer camp. Principal Pamela Broome also shared that 67 have re-enrolled for the 2021-2022 school year. “This is a school of choice, so I think those numbers speak volumes  about the work we are doing here.” The school doubled enrollment to 160 and added 3rd grade for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Niner Elementary Summer Reading Camp Employs Whole-Student Approach 

Niner applied the same unique whole-student approach to its first summer reading camp. The staff was comprised of four faculty members from Niner, including Sherry Miller, social worker, and April Graham, counselor, who provided support where needed; 2 instructional assistants; 1 ESL/Spanish teacher; one play therapy intern; a counselor from Windsor Park who taught reading; and two pre-service teachers from the University.  

“We have a wide variety of gifts and skills and also a range of different experiences teaching,” said Dr. Erin Washburn, associate professor of reading and elementary education at UNCC and Niner Summer Reading Camp director.

“We were very intentional about the camp curriculum for Niner and wanted to make sure that the summer mirrored the work that Ms. Broome and her staff began during the school year,” noted Washburn. “We also wanted to provide our learners with experiences they may not have access to in the summer. Therefore, in addition to training in the literacy curricula, all camp staff received training on trauma-invested practices for supporting students’ social and emotional needs.”  

Washburn led the implementation of Sound Partners for foundational reading skills and Dr. Miranda Fitzgerald, a reading and elementary education department faculty member at UNC Charlotte, led the implementation of SOLID Start, an integrated literacy and science curriculum from Michigan State University.  Dr. Sam Gesel, assistant professor of special education at UNC Charlotte and interim Virtual Summer Reading Camp director, and staff from the University provided onsite coaching, modeling, and fidelity checks. 

Sound Partners Builds Foundational Reading Skills 

Niner campers received 58 hours of literacy instruction over six weeks. Each day included two hours of literacy instruction: one hour focused on building campers’ foundational reading skills through Sound Partners and an hour of integrated literacy and science instruction through two units of SOLID Start.

Sound Partners, which had been used for years at the other site, is an evidence-based tutoring program that provides individual instruction in early reading skills. The program benefits students in grades K–2 who are learning to read and provides intervention for students in grades 2–3. Groups of 1-3 campers worked with trained teachers to build phonemic awareness, word recognition, and fluency skills. Specifically, Sound Partners 

  • Includes application of word-reading skills through storybook reading practice
  • Provides kindergarten instruction in phonological skills and initial sound identification
  • Improves phonemic awareness, decoding, word identification, and spelling skills
  • Provides scaffolded practice in phoneme segmentation

The program was taught by two pre-service teachers from the University, providing them with valuable clinical experience before their senior year. Washburn and her UNC Charlotte colleagues’ plan is to expand opportunities for more pre-service teachers to have the opportunity to teach Sound Partners in future summers at Niner.  

Lindsay Shewmaker is conducting a Sound Partners Mastery Test to gauge student reading and spelling growth. 

SOLID Start Integrates Science and Literacy 

Steeped in the science of reading, The SOLID Start project (Science, Oral Language, and Literacy Development from the Start of School), integrates science and literacy. Components of the SOLID Start curriculum include unit and daily driving questions (ASK), multi-modal investigations of and experiences with science phenomena (EXPLORE), science informational text read alouds (READ), science writing and drawing opportunities (WRITE), and science synthesis discussions (SYNTHESIZE) to build children’s oral language with a focus on explanations of phenomena.

The first unit was engineering-based and focused on force and motion. Niner campers built and tested their own toy box cars to see how far and fast they could go. One activity involved using different height ramps to see how gravity affected the speed and distance their cars traveled.

During the Ever-Changing Environment Unit, campers studied why plants and animals change their environment. They had ant farms in the classroom so that they could make observations about how ants build their tunnels and they built beaver dams out of clay and popsicle sticks to observe how the structures affected the flow of water. Plants growing through cracks in the sidewalk provided a lesson about the conditions plants need to survive.

“SOLID Start provides lots of high-quality interactive read alouds with every lesson that help kids make sense of what they are seeing and doing first-hand. They have the opportunity to make connections and build background knowledge based on their first-hand experiences and then apply it in the context of reading and discussing the text,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.  

Niner Summer Reading Camp also teamed up with the Greater Enrichment Program (GEP) of Charlotte to provide at least two hours of enrichment daily. GEP, a non-profit focused on preventing summer learning loss, has over two decades of summer programming experience in West Charlotte. GEP created six weeks of themed educational and enrichment opportunities that spanned the gamut from golf field trips to gem-mining to Brazilian martial arts and in-house visits from ImagineOn, Discovery Place, local artists, and the Mad Scientist. 

Niner campers were administered “mastery tests” at the beginning of camp (for initial Sound Partners lesson placement) and throughout camp which tested students’ ability to apply taught skills (letter and word reading and spelling, sight word reading) without the teacher’s help. On average, students achieved 85.6% on their final mastery test of the summer whereas their initial mastery test average score was 72.4%. Pre- and post-test scores on standardized measures of reading revealed that, on average, NUE campers made significant growth in phonemic awareness and word reading skills and maintained oral reading fluency skills. Given both these sets of results, it is clear that Niner campers grew in their reading skills this summer.

Proud of the work that has been done so far, Broome is confident that Niner will become a blueprint for creating highly engaging, successful educational programs across the state. 

“After 29 years in education, this is the first time in my career that the students truly come first. At Niner, we constantly ask ourselves who are the people we are serving and what do they need? That is how we build our curriculum and how we look at our educator preparation program. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. It is customized to the students in front of us, which is a pretty incredible thing.”