Literacy efforts prove to be a moving target for this school
CEDAR RAPIDS – Principal Candace Lynch likens her school’s previous literacy efforts to teaching students how to ride a bike.
“Over here, the students were learning about the pedal, and over there they were learning about the brakes, and over there they were learning about the handles,” she said. “But we never taught them how to put it all together and actually ride the bike.”
This analogy suits the efforts of many schools across the state: You can teach the parts, but until you teach the whole – recognizing there are many components to effective reading and not a one-size-fits-all approach – many students are never going to get into that bike’s seat.
Lynch, who heads the Johnson STEAM Academy Magnet School in Cedar Rapids, said that despite the school being identified as high functioning, they were flummoxed over their lackluster literacy scores, particularly as it pertained to students on Individualized Education Programs.
It wasn’t just at Johnson, however.
“We had different things happening around the schools,” said Wendy Parker, the district’s executive director of special services. “You would have some sort of model and buildings would go through it. They would gather data and develop an action plan. But then it would just fall away. We weren’t getting the results we needed.”
That’s when Parker turned to Iowa Reading Research Center.
“We decided we would look at it through the special education lens,” Parker said. “We wanted to see if we could close that gap, knowing all along that when we provide good instruction to kids in special education that we improve instruction for all kids.”
Sandy Schmitz, assistant director of the Iowa Reading Research Center, said she offered the center’s initiative Practitioners and Researchers Overcoming Problems in Literacy, better known for its acronym PROPeL.
PROPeL, Schmitz said, “is an initiative that we started at the center to help local teams address literacy concerns, but it is entirely data driven. It is a data-driven process to dig deep into data to identify students whose scores are contributing to the literacy concerns, but also then determine the root cause of it. It is systems based, which looks into how the system is able to meet the needs of the students who need it most. It incorporates evidence-based practices to address the root cause, and fold that into an improvement plan implemented with fidelity. Then we look at the impact it is having based on the literacy data.”
“The heart and core of it is the staff coming together as a team,” said Gretchen Lawyer, one of the district’s two PROPeL implementation coaches. “It’s about making decisions and having ownership. It’s important for the team to understand what the data means.”
“The center’s role is really to facilitate and train on the different data-decision making steps,” Schmitz said. “It is more of a process. But the team is the heart of it because it is meant to build their buy in particularly as to the root cause. If you don’t know what the root cause is, what is it that you’re fixing? School districts have spent years of purchasing things because it works somewhere else. But it may not have anything to do with the context of Cedar Rapids. Cedar Rapids would need evidence-based practice that deals with poverty, diversity and mobility.”
PROPeL is an evidence-based initiative that requires flexibility in discerning each individual’s needs.
“The success that Cedar Rapids has comes from having done this type of work all over the country,” Schmitz said. “Many schools will say poverty is the root cause of discrepancies, but it’s not poverty – it is how they are addressing their students’ needs. This building has lots of mobility, so we have to do things quickly because we don’t know how long we will have them. They don’t use mobility as an excuse. We need to set up our instruction model to meet the needs of kids who have high mobility.”
Parker said once the district decided to pursue PROPeL, it would do it right.
“We made a commitment to hire two PROPeL coaches,” she said. “Schools in the district had to fill out an application.”
When Principal Lynch first heard about the initiative, she was hesitant to have the school apply.
“When the applications came out I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I don’t know if we can handle one more thing,’” she said. “When I talked with (instructional coach) Jill (Nunez) about it, she said, ‘we need to do this.’ When we brought it back to the staff, everyone was on board.”
Four schools were chosen in the district, including Johnson.
“Johnson was particularly interesting because it is a magnet school with 50 percent mobility among the students, high poverty and the highest African American population in the district,” Parker said. “The culture here is high functioning. People feel safe and valued. Then it was like, ‘why aren’t our reading scores better? What is that additional piece that we’re not doing?’”
It turns out that additional piece was multi-faceted. Interventions weren’t necessarily aligned with individual student needs. Teachers were not comfortable teaching some aspects of literacy instruction. And looking at data was done, for the most part, individually.
“When you are looking at data, generally you are lucky to have one person doing it and the results can get watered down,” Lynch said. “But since we meet every week as a team, you don’t lose sight of it, it doesn’t get mixed in with everything else you are trying to do. We know reading is critical no matter what kids are doing.”
Before the school launched its new efforts, staff pored through data to determine root causes.
“The root cause was the foundational reading skills,” said Gretchen Lawyer, a district PROPeL implementation coach. “There were large gaps in phonological awareness. Then we did a survey with the staff and found that our knowledge base in phonological awareness wasn’t strong – especially our teachers in the third, fourth and fifth grade. They did not know how to address these issues.”
Professional development was used to bolster the Johnson team’s knowledge base, and the school turned to implementation. Teachers were assigned to pods, and students were divided into small groups based on their skill needs – not grade level. The pods meet 60 minutes every day.
“We don’t silo ourselves based on ‘this is a special education teacher,’” Lynch said. “If a special education teacher knows how to teach a skill and a general education student needs it, that teacher is going to deliver the instruction.”
“It was interesting to see in the data that the upper level kids still had huge gaps,” Lawyer said. “So that’s why we decided as a team we are not just focusing on the k-2 students, but all students with have access to these initiatives.”
And the work – just months into its launch – is showing great results.
“Since the students started receiving this instruction, 80 percent are passing at grade level,” Lawyer said.
But in true can-do Johnson spirit, the team knew they still had plenty of work to do.
“Our progress has been awesome, but what do we do now because it is not enough,” Lynch said. “We know that phonological awareness isn’t enough.”
“The next area of need as seen through the survey is vocabulary,” Lawyer said.
And that’s where the school will focus next.
The improvement in literacy skills is not lost on the students.
“There are things going on that I have never seen in five years here,” Lynch said. “I will walk through the halls and see kids waiting in line reading their books. They are feeling confident.”
The teachers are feeling confident, too.
“They really appreciate being supported,” Nunez said. “At first there was that learning curve, but now it is embedded into their instruction so it doesn’t feel like an extra piece.”
Schmitz gives credit to the Cedar Rapids district for its strong support.
“This all came about through the district’s leadership,” she said. “It is very unusual having a district assign individual staff to these efforts. They made a tremendous effort. And the building leader has to support and embrace this. It takes time and attention.”
For most initiatives, sustainability, or the ability to continue the program through the years, is always a huge consideration given the fact that teachers move away or retire. But Schmitz doesn’t see that as a problem in the Cedar Rapids district.
“I’m not worried about Cedar Rapids because they have such momentum,” she said. “Even then, the success the buildings are seeing – when you have data that shows kids are learning, it’s very difficult to walk away from.”
To that end, the district plans to add another four buildings and two more coaches next year.
Lynch said it’s critical that staff is heard during all phases of training.
“When people say ‘slow down,’ we slow down,” she said. “What this initiative is changed how we go about doing things. For years we have said that we don’t have a common language in reading instruction. PROPeL has given us that common language – I hear that from kindergarten through the fifth grade.”
For Teacher Alexis Bailey, she was pleased but not surprised with the progress the school has made in such a short time.
“Before, our work focused on when we could pull them out of class,” she said. “Now it is all based on their individual needs and we have a set time. And we are not labeling students as general education or special education. It is based on what they need and we give them support in those areas.”
Teacher Katie Eichhorn is very confident in the work they are doing.
“Our job is to work ourselves out of a job,” she said. “The confidence levels among the children are high. And we’ve changed how students view school. Special education used to be where kids were being pulled out of class. Now, all kids are pulled into different groups for reading, based on their needs.
“It’s truly exciting. We are really making a difference. We can see it."