‘We’re Not Only Stronger Teachers, But We’re Stronger Leaders:’ 18 Teachers Earn Master’s Degrees, Become Literacy Leaders Through Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership

18 teachers supported by the Mebane Charitable Foundation's Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership who graduated from the College of Education with their master’s degrees in May 2022- hold their hats in the air in celebration.

Note: This article originally appeared on the NC State College of Education website ( “We’re Not Only Stronger Teachers, But We’re Stronger Leaders…”) and is republished here with permission. 

By Janine Bowen 

When Melissa East ’22MED first set foot in a third-grade classroom, she recognized that there were gaps in her instructional knowledge.

East had originally studied to become a physical education teacher before ultimately taking on a position as a classroom teacher. As a result, she felt as though she did not know as much about literacy instruction as some of her peers who had earned degrees in subjects like elementary education. Although she engaged in independent study and sought out professional development opportunities, she wanted more. 

When she learned about the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership, she immediately knew it could help her advance her skills as an educator. 

“When this opportunity came along, I decided I wanted to take advantage of it so that I could learn a lot of the things I need to know to help my students,” said East, who teaches at Falls Creek Elementary School. “It has been a learning adventure, and I say adventure in the best way because I’ve learned so many things that have really been impactful in a positive way in my classroom.” 

Funded by a $575,183 grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation, 18 teachers from Yadkin County Schools were able to earn their master’s degree from the NC State College of Education’s New Literacies and Global Learning program, with a concentration in K-12 Reading, at no cost to them. The goal of the cohort-based Master of Education program was to help teachers gain the advanced expertise necessary to effectively implement evidence-based literacy instruction and become literacy leaders within their district. 

All 18 teachers graduated from the College of Education with their master’s degrees in May 2022. 

“They have not only gained new knowledge about evidence-based reading instruction, but they have also gained new levels of confidence in their abilities to lead and advocate for effective instruction for other teachers,” said Associate Professor of Literacy Education Dennis Davis, who is the principal investigator on the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership. 

Putting Theory into Practice

During the 2021-22 school year, Hannah Cox ’22MED, a kindergarten teacher at Courtney Elementary School, watched her students get better at phonemic awareness, the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in words. 

She already knew phonemic awareness was an important part of the reading process, but Cox said she really didn’t have an in-depth understanding of the concept until she joined the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership. 

The strategies learned while earning her master’s degree, Cox said, allowed her to be more intentional in practicing letter sounds, starting sounds and rhyming with her students and helping them connect those concepts to other skills they’re developing as beginning readers. 

“One of the big things I’ve started focusing on is skills and making sure that these kids, once they have all these skills, are applying them to their reading,” she said. “Being intentional with the word work, they have grown a lot from the beginning of the school year. Their reading scores have looked really good.” 

Leading the Way in Teaching and Innovating Literacy Instruction 

Kennedy Neiderer ’22MED has also noticed growth among the students in her combination second and third-grade class at Forbush Elementary School. One third grader, she said, began the 2021-22 school year at a first-grade reading level. By the end of the year, his reading scores had improved by 81 points.

She credits a phonics intervention strategy she learned while working with the Wolfpack Readers tutoring program during her time in the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership with helping this student, and others in her class, make such progress. 

The intervention involved using tiles with letters on them to allow children to manipulate and visualize the sounds and spelling of words, in the same way that more common math manipulatives let children visualize number concepts. When she saw the success of the tiles with Wolfpack Readers students, Neiderer created some for her own classroom.

“In Yadkin County, a lot of our [curriculum] is spent in a workbook, so I felt that having those tiles and having those hands-on interventions and reading activities really helped the students,” she said. “They’re able to manipulate the tiles and fix their mistakes as they go. I really liked that it was a great visual for them.” 

Delivering evidence-based interventions to students with reading difficulties in the Wolfpack Readers program gave Yadkin County teachers the freedom to try out new practices in a controlled and supervised setting without the limitations of teaching in a classroom setting, Davis said.

“They also benefited from being able to see the routines work for their students. For example, seeing their Wolfpack Readers take on increased independence as they got more comfortable and familiar with the instructional routines,” he said. 

East said the hands-on approach to learning about literacy that was provided through work with the Wolfpack Readers program allowed her to feel comfortable with new strategies before she implemented them in her classroom. 

For example, materials she used with Wolfpack Readers are now part of her beginning-of-the-year assessments for struggling readers. This has allowed her to gain a better understanding of the areas in which they need the most support and focus on those during the school year. 

“It has completely changed my reading intervention,” East said. “I found that the NC State tutoring materials that were provided to me really made a huge difference.”

East has also helped her students become more engaged readers by providing them with options to choose which books they would read during small group instruction. It’s a change, she said, that she did not fully understand the importance of until taking a class with Assistant Teaching Professor Jill Jones

“I enjoyed being part of the program because I can see how it is directly impacting me and my career, and it’s bringing positive change to my life and the lives of my students,” East said. “Just to be part of something where I can learn something one day and then the next day apply it to my classroom is pretty awesome.” 

Hannah Cox, a seventh-year teacher who teaches a K-1 combination class at Courtney Elementary School works with student Joselin De La Sancha.

Leading the Way for Other Teachers

The impact of the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership is already extending beyond the 18 teachers who earned their master’s degree as part of the program to other educators in the region. 

One of the partnership’s goals was to enable graduates to become literacy leaders within their district. Neiderer and her colleague Paige Clark ’22MED, who was also a participant in the program, have already begun sharing what they know in order to address what they saw as literacy weaknesses within their school. 

The writing curriculum that was widely used within their school, Neiderer said, was not engaging for students who, as a result, were often struggling with writing. In response, she and Clark held a professional development session to share strategies they had learned through their time in the College of Education and Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership, and had found effective in their own classrooms. 

For example, they shared with colleagues ways to make poetry more fun by incorporating lessons like blackout poetry and ways to engage students by incorporating writing workshops, where students publish and share their work with classmates each week. 

“We have had a few teachers say that they tried the writer’s workshop style format and really enjoyed that,” Neiderer said. “A lot of teachers have told us that it’s been nice for them to see how excited their kids are getting and how they think ‘I want to do my best because everyone is going to read this.’”

Neiderer and Clark also introduced other teachers to different technologies and resources that they can use in their classrooms and spent time discussing the developmental process of writing so teachers could learn to better differentiate among students who need more help. 

Several of the teachers in the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership have also shared their knowledge of literacy concepts with a wider audience through a series of YouTube videos called “KnERD Bites.

“I hope they will keep seeking out and saying ‘yes’ to opportunities to be leaders and mentors for others in their district,” Davis said. “I hope they have formed a network that will extend well beyond the two years of the degree. That was the real objective of this experience all along.”

“It was really an amazing experience, and I know a lot of us feel like we’re not only stronger teachers, but we’re stronger leaders too. That’s really the main takeaway,” Neiderer said.  

As teachers in the Yadkin County Schools district are scheduled to begin Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training next year, several Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership alumni are already planning ways they can use what they learned in the College of Education to assist their colleagues. 

Cox said she feels confident in her ability to assist others with new concepts introduced to them through LETRS because she already developed a good understanding of the science of reading while earning her master’s degree. 

“I feel like [faculty in the College of Education] did a great job of teaching us about the science of reading. Our district doesn’t start LETRS training until the fall, but I already feel like I have a good basis of the different parts of the science of reading,” she said. “I’m going to be trying to help other teachers in our district with what we’ve learned, to take that knowledge and share it, because it was a great experience.”

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Wolfpack Readers Tutoring Program Gives Teachers Hands-on Experience While Students Gain Reading Skills

Becky Dorman and a Wolfpack Reader during a tutoring session at East Bend Elementary School. Photo credit, Jon Holleman.

Ella reads as Becky Dorman points to each word. For the next hour, the second grader will receive systematic, evidence-based instruction in the foundational skills needed for literacy success.

The Wolfpack Readers after school-school tutoring program is part of the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership (YWLP) between the NC State College of Education and Yadkin County Schools (YCS) designed to improve reading proficiency in the district by helping teachers become literacy leaders.

Partnership Creates Readers and Leaders

Funded by a two-year $575,000 grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville, the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership is using a cohort-based Master of Education program to enable 18 elementary through high school teachers with YCS to gain the expertise needed to effectively implement evidence-based literacy instruction, assessment, and intervention in their schools —  all expenses paid. The teachers who complete the program will receive a Master of Education degree and gain the knowledge needed to pursue advanced licensure in North Carolina as reading specialists. 

Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, hopes the partnership will also serve as a pilot test of a literacy leadership development model that can be replicated by other districts in North Carolina looking to cultivate transformative expertise in their schools. 

Program Has Long Term Impact on Classrooms

“This is our second attempt to partner with a college of education and a school system. In 2008, we partnered with Davie County Schools and Appalachian’s Reich College of Education with a similar Master’s cohort group, but at that time, we focused on classroom technology. We believe that program was very successful and to this day many of the teachers who participated remain in the classroom or have moved into leadership roles. It’s my hope that this impressive group of educators from Yadkin County Schools will go on to have a similar impact in their classrooms for years to come.”

Data shows that fewer than 60 percent of students in North Carolina are proficient in reading by the end of third grade. This means that many students ultimately advance to middle school without the necessary reading skills to be successful. Although the project focuses on early literacy, the participation of four middle school teachers and a high school teacher allows for literacy specialists to be available to help older students who need extra support. 

YWLP participants take two classes each semester. This spring they completed courses on content area reading and intervention methods in phonics/decoding which aligned well with the start of Wolfpack Readers. 

Roseanna Laws and her tutoring student use letter tiles to build, sort, and spell words. Photo credit, Jon Holleman.

Beginning in January, nine students selected by the administrators and teachers at East Bend Elementary School received two hours of instruction each week for eleven weeks. The teachers, who were divided into teams of two, each provided one hour of instruction, which allowed them to practice their course work as well as their collaboration skills as they worked with their partner to plan each week’s lessons. 

“The Wolfpack Readers program gives graduate students hands-on experience with a toolkit of evidence-based practices that align with the research they are learning about in their coursework,” explained Dr. Dennis Davis, associate professor of literacy education at the NC State College of Education and director of the program.

He shared the components of each tutoring session. 

Tutoring Sessions Include

~10 minutesKnowledge Building  (KB)
~10 minutesBreaking Words (BW)
~10 minutesReading with Expression (RE)
~30 minutesWord Workshop (WW)

Breaking Down the Intervention Strategies

According to Davis, the purpose of the Knowledge Building (KB) segment is to ensure that the intervention components are connected to meaningful content learning goals while maintaining a priority focus on accelerating their growth in letter-sound knowledge, decoding, and word reading. During this segment, Wolfpack Readers read real books on their topic. 

In the Breaking Words (BW) segment, Wolfpack Readers learn to recognize and structurally analyze complex academic words with multiple syllables related to their topics. The words come from a pre-selected multisyllabic word list that corresponds to their chosen inquiry topic plus teacher-selected words chosen from the book section they are reading each day. The teacher helps the student closely analyze each word using a fast-paced routine that includes identifying the syllable junctures in the word, cutting the word apart into its syllables, re-assembling the word, and adding prefixes or suffixes to make new, related words. 

The Reading with Expression (RE) segment was designed to help students build fluency (defined as accuracy, rate, and prosody) through repeated reading with teacher modeling and feedback.

“Repeated access to shared vocabulary and concepts supports the students’ learning and allows the tutor to ‘stretch’ the students’ reading level by choosing texts that increase in complexity over time,” said Davis. “To ensure that students are able to practice fluency with high word recognition accuracy, the texts are controlled for difficulty using a “stacking” approach; that is, there are four versions of each text, each one slightly more complex than the previous one.”

In the final component, Word Workshop (WW) the Wolfpack Readers engage in systematic instruction to increase their knowledge of letter-sound correspondence. Using letter tiles and carefully chosen words, they build, sort, and spell words using sound-spelling patterns that they have not yet mastered. Teachers focus explicitly on a few specific patterns during the program, chosen for each student based on assessment data they collect at the beginning of the experience. 

Integrated Training Gets High Marks From Teachers

“I have learned so much from participating in the Wolfpack Reader’s program,” said Becky Dorman, who teaches at Forbush High School. “Being a high school English teacher, I did not have the previous training nor experience my peers had when teaching early reading skills. However, my tutoring partner, Paige Clark, was instrumental during this process.”

“It’s interesting to see how these skills translate in my own classroom in which I teach 10th grade. For example, we work with elements of audible craft which include alliteration, assonance, and recognizing hard and soft sounds. These lessons give me the opportunity to review phonemes and blends with my teenagers so they can better understand and identify them when they are reading a text.” 

Dorman said her English language learners (ELL) are also benefiting from her participation in the YWLP project. “The coursework from this semester has given me a lot of tools to better help these students begin their understanding of the written and spoken language. For example, using strategies like decoding by analogy can help ELL students solve unfamiliar words by looking for parts they already know or parts they are familiar with in their native language. Furthermore, understanding and teaching morphemes (a word or part of a word that has meaning) can help these students quickly build a useful vocabulary that’s needed in many situations. Due to the material covered throughout this course, I feel much more confident in my ability to help these students who often know very little English.”

“Overall, the coursework, training, and tutoring have impacted my teaching in ways that I would have never thought possible at this level,” said Dorman. “It’s amazing that once you have been provided with the information, you can easily begin implementing it into your classroom no matter what level you teach.” 

Although already trained in early reading skills, Jennifer Foster, a 4th-grade teacher at East Bend, said the Wolfpack Reader’s program has impacted the way she conducts her reading groups in her classroom. “This allows me to incorporate meaningful strategies throughout my reading groups that are best for that group of students.  I use many of the reading strategies with my whole class and we incorporate those strategies more in-depth in small group settings. I have enjoyed collaborating with Mr. (Jon) Holleman as my tutoring partner this semester. We were able to collaborate each week and developed a plan for the following week.” 

“Since the program was held at my school, I have been able to see how the tutoring program has impacted each student. The students are confident in their reading and the strategies they were taught during the Wolfpack Reader’s program,” said Foster. “Thank you for providing our students with the opportunity to grow and benefit from such an effective program!”

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Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership: Equipping Teachers to be Literacy Leaders

By Jeanna Baxter White

Lindsay Harper teaches kindergarten at Courtney Elementary School

During the day, Lindsay Harper teaches kindergarten at Courtney Elementary School in Yadkinville, NC. But one evening a week, she becomes the student as part of the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership (YWLP) between the NC State College of Education and Yadkin County Schools (YCS) designed to improve reading proficiency in the district by helping teachers become literacy leaders.

Funded by a two-year $575,000 grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville, the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership (YWLP) is using a cohort-based Master of Education program to enable 20 teachers with YCS to gain the expertise needed to effectively implement evidence-based literacy instruction, assessment, and intervention in the elementary grades —  all expenses paid. The teachers who complete the program will receive a Master of Education and gain the knowledge needed to pursue advanced licensure in North Carolina as reading specialists. The partnership will also serve as a pilot test of a literacy leadership development model that can be replicated by other districts in North Carolina looking to cultivate transformative expertise in their schools.

“We want to see this partnership have a long-term impact in Yadkin County Schools,” said Dr. Dennis Davis, associate professor of literacy education at the NC State College of Education and the director of the program. “Imagine if ten years from now the YWLP teachers are still collaborating as a network of experts to model effective practices for their colleagues and inform district-level decisions related to early literacy learning. That is what we hope to see in the future – not just a group of teachers getting better at their craft, but also sticking together around the important cause of ensuring success for every child in the district.” 

Larry Colbourne, president of the Foundation, can’t think of a better, more appropriate location for such an investment.

“The Mebane Foundation had been exploring opportunities for a partnership with NC State’s College of Education for more than a year,” said Colbourne. “When Dr. Davis approached me with this unique partnership opportunity, I immediately thought of Yadkin County Schools. The county is the epicenter for Unifi’s global operations, and much of the corpus of this foundation can be traced back to the wealth Mr. Mebane accumulated as a founder of Unifi. I can’t think of a better way to give back to Yadkin County.”

Fifteen members of the cohort are working in elementary schools, four in middle school, and one in high school. Although the project focuses on early literacy, the participation of middle school teachers and a high school teacher allows for literacy specialists to be available to help students outside of an elementary school setting, which has been historically uncommon, according to Davis.

The program officially launched on August 4th with an online orientation, hosted on Zoom, attended by all 20 members of the YWLP, the NC State team, and the instructors who are leading the fall courses. 

“This is not the launch meeting we expected to have when we first envisioned the project prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it allowed us to share program goals, get everyone organized for their courses, and establish momentum for the year,” said Davis. “Fortunately, many of the project activities were designed to be implemented from a distance.”

“The pandemic has definitely created challenges for everyone, especially teachers, but the members of the YWLP have proven to be tough and dedicated and continue to complete assignments and participate in their coursework.” 

Teachers are taking two courses during the fall semester: Reading in the Elementary School and New Literacies and Media. The team meets together weekly in an online class and teachers complete additional learning activities independently. 

“The students in the YWLP spent this semester understanding evidence-based literacy practices, research findings related to these practices, and how to incorporate these instructional practices into their own classrooms. Throughout the semester, the students learned, discussed, and reflected on their own practices related to overarching literacy concepts,” explained Dr. Jill Jones, YWLP instructor and teaching assistant professor at NC State.  

Hannah Cox teaches kindergarten at Courtney Elementary School

“It has been exciting to hear the specific learnings that resonated with the teachers and how they are implementing these ideas in their classrooms. For example, after learning about vocabulary, the teachers began more intentional vocabulary instruction, selecting impactful words based on their learnings of this process, and developing students’ word awareness. As a culmination of the course and to promote the application of their learning, each teacher wrote a paper explaining their main learnings about literacy instruction, describing why these concepts are important, and how they will implement this knowledge in their future teaching,” Jones said.  

“The new knowledge gained by these teachers in the YWLP cohort allows them to reflect on their own instructional practices and implement effective instruction to further develop their reading practices. We are building the teachers’ own knowledge of literacy with the goal of creating literacy leaders who intend to share this knowledge with colleagues in their schools and in the district. I have enjoyed hearing how these teachers are already sharing their new knowledge in discussions with colleagues, planning sessions, and more formal collaborations such as PLCs.”

Participating teachers are enthusiastic about what they have learned so far and how it is already benefiting them in their classroom.  

“I am absolutely loving this program!” exclaimed Harper. “So far, the classes have gone well! Of course, I now drink multiple cups of coffee a day, but it is well worth it. The professors have been amazing. They have been supportive throughout the entire semester, and they have been patient with us as we are navigating teaching during a pandemic. I have learned so many new things already, and it is just the beginning! I look forward to continuing this program to benefit the students and Yadkin County Schools!” 

“I am very excited about all the things I have learned so far from the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership,” shared Hannah Cox, who teaches at Courtney Elementary School. “I am enjoying digging deeper into what vocabulary instruction should look like with my kindergarten students! I have also enjoyed using Twitter chats to have discussions with my peers and professor! It is a great way for us to collaborate!”

Jon Holleman teaches 6th-grade language arts at Starmount Middle School

The training has been equally beneficial to the middle school teachers in the program. 

Jon Holleman, who teaches 6th-grade language arts at Starmount Middle School, said, “As a middle grades teacher, I did not receive many lessons on how to teach students to read. I knew comprehension strategies, but not the mechanics and science of reading. I chose to participate in the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership to broaden my knowledge base and to help my struggling sixth-grade readers. This semester has been challenging, but that’s due to the unprecedented challenge (at least in our lifetimes) of teaching during a pandemic.  However, our NC State professors have been quick to show us grace in working with us. They understand that these are challenging times for teaching, and have been wonderful in helping us to achieve a balance between work, school, and for many of us, parenting.” 

“I have used several of the ideas from the course so far in my teaching, with plans to do more,” he added.   “Just this week we did an assignment on giving feedback, where we thought back to a time when we received negative feedback and how that affected us. From that, we created a list of feedback rules that will help us stay positive while helping the students grow. This was powerful, and the assignment reminded us to be thoughtful in the words we choose.  Also, the class has reinforced for me the importance of building the students’ vocabularies.  The more vocabulary students know, the more they will be able to comprehend what they read.”  

Dusti Gardner, who teaches at Forbush Middle School, agreed with Holleman, saying, “The YWLP has been such a wonderful program to be a part of so far. As a middle school teacher, I have already learned so many methods for helping my elementary-level students, as well as different literacy strategies to apply in my classroom to engage and support adolescent readers. My ultimate goal by being a member of this program is to build my knowledge in order to help my students grow into more confident and proficient readers.”

The teachers aren’t the only ones to receive training. School administrators will also play a role in the project through workshops that will help them better understand some of the terminology and principles of effective literacy instruction. These workshops have been delayed due to COVID, so the team is considering the possibility of beginning these through online modules/meetings. 

Dusti Gardner teaches 8th-grade language arts at Forbush Middle School

Davis and his team, which includes Dr. Jackie Relyea and doctoral students Sarah Dempsey Dawson and Courtney Samuelson, developed a detailed plan for evaluating the impact of the university-district partnership on student and teacher outcomes. This, too, has had to be modified because of the pandemic. 

“We have already conducted one round of interviews with a subset of the YWLP teachers,” said Davis. “The interviews are helping us identify areas of the experience that need extra care or revision. We will continue using interviews for this purpose over the next year of the program. When it becomes appropriate, we will also visit classrooms and observe teachers in action to learn more about how they are applying their learning in their teaching.” 

Despite the pandemic-related setbacks, Davis is busily preparing for spring, including coordinating with Jessica Stump, YCS director of elementary curriculum & instruction, to organize the inaugural Wolfpack Readers session in Yadkin County, to begin in late January. These sessions will allow the YWLP teachers to further practice their skills working after school with children who need supplemental instruction in reading.

“I have spoken with several teachers participating in the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership,” said Stump. “They are rockstars: juggling teaching as we could have never imagined, new technology, difficult schedules, AND grad school!  Each of them has shared, however, that they are learning so much about the reading process and are energized by these new understandings. I have been excited to hear that the resources we are using across the district fit into the work of this program. We are on our way to equipping teachers with a robust knowledge of ‘why’ and ‘how’ to grow our readers, even in the midst of these tangled times.”   

The YCS teachers who are members of the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership are:

  • Peyton Allen – instructional coach, Courtney Elementary School
  • Hannah Cox – kindergarten, Courtney Elementary School
  • Rebecca Bollinger – 7th-grade EC, Forbush Middle School 
  • Rebecca Dorman – English, Forbush High School 
  • Melissa East – 3rd grade, Fall Creek Elementary School 
  • Jennifer Foster – 4th grade, East Bend Elementary School 
  • Dusti Gardner – 8th-grade language arts, Forbush Middle School 
  • Brittany Groce – 8th-grade math, Forbush Middle School 
  • Lindsay Harper – kindergarten, Courtney Elementary School
  • Kattie Harris – 2nd grade, Boonville Elementary School 
  • Summer Hauser Clark – 4th/5th grade Forbush Elementary School 
  • Hannah Haynes – 2nd grade, Boonville Elementary School 
  • Jon Holleman – 6th-grade language arts, Starmount Middle School 
  • Clarissa Howard – physical education, Jonesville Elementary School 
  • Ashley Johnson – 2nd grade, Yadkinville Elementary School 
  • Rosanna Laws – 4th grade, Boonville Elementary School 
  • Lori Laws – 1st grade, Jonesville Elementary School 
  • Karie Matthews – 1st grade, Yadkinville Elementary School 
  • Hannah Neal – 3rd grade, Boonville Elementary School 
  • Kennedy Neiderer – 2nd/3rd grade, Forbush Elementary School

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