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Charlottesville School Board votes to spend $345k on new reading program

Charlottesville elementary school teachers will have new reading resources in their hands next semester as the division looks to take a different, more systematic approach to teaching children how to read.

The School Board voted Wednesday in a work session to spend $345,575 on a kindergarten through fifth-grade reading program through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Teachers at Clark and Jackson-Via elementaries currently are trying out the materials and have seen promising results. However, concrete data on student performance was not available at this point in the school year.

Voting Wednesday saved the division $144,000. Jim Henderson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said HMH approached the division with the discount recently, which sped up the timeline to buy the reading program.

The division has been researching a new reading program since October 2018.

Board members Jennifer McKeever and Lisa Larson-Torres voted against the purchase after more than an hour of discussion, citing concerns with the process, quick turnaround on the vote and need for more information.

HMH’s Into Reading will provide much more explicit and systematic phonics instruction compared to Benchmark Literacy, the program, which was purchased six years ago, Henderson said. Additionally, having a shared learning resource among all the elementary schools will ensure consistent pacing and lessons. Into Reading provides stories for students to read and guidance for teachers.

Children have to be taught how to read, and explicit instruction in phonics — the connection between sounds and letters — is critical to that, numerous studies have found.

Division staff members didn’t provide more information about their overall approach to teaching reading during Wednesday’s work session. The School Board will hear a literacy update in February.

Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said how teachers currently are approaching reading works for some students.

“Students who are of color are not succeeding right now in reading, so we have to develop a different pathway,” she said. “I believe firmly, and I think some of our schools have seen this, when we have the explicit instruction that HMH provides all of our students start to rise.”

Last school year, 70% of Charlottesville students overall passed the reading SOL, compared to 48% of black students, 68% of Hispanic students and 49% of students from low-income households.

This is the first academic year Into Reading has been in schools, according to Education Week.

Henderson and Gertrude Ivory, a division consultant, said they will combine the new reading materials with “robust professional development” but did not provide details on what that would look like right now.

With Benchmark, the division failed to provide the necessary professional development to teachers, Henderson said.

That professional development will make the most difference in students’ ability to read, said Ivory, the division’s former associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, who has returned to the school system to assist with a push toward standards-aligned lesson plans and other efforts.

She said the division shouldn’t ask teachers to do something that it hasn’t taught them how to do.

“We have had a lot of hobby teaching in reading and reading is rocket science,” she said. “It is not an easy feat, but we can certainly teach our teachers to do the right thing, so that our children do achieve.”

Ivory emphasized that Into Reading is a resource, not a curriculum. In division jargon, the resource is referred to a basal reader.

“Teachers are the people that make the difference, not the tools we’re using,” she said. “But when teachers know what good reading instruction is, then they choose more wisely from the tools that are at their disposal.”

Atkins added that division teachers have done a good job with the professional development they have been given.

Since September, Ivory and other division staff members have been working with teachers to create those lesson plans, a project that showed the need for consistent resources, she said.

“Using the basal reader program, Clark and Jackson-Via teachers were able to design standard-aligned lessons sooner than the other teachers because they did not have to look for materials that were aligned to what it was they were teaching,” she said.

Into Reading is not an end-all, be-all resource, Ivory said. During the initial rollout of materials, teachers will work to identify gaps in the program.

Board members asked how division staff planned to make sure teachers would keep using the program and not shelve the resources after a few years.

Ivory said that with Benchmark, the division did not have a professional development plan, instructional framework for literacy, or a way to ensure teachers are delivering standard-aligned lessons. All that is the works for the new program, she said.


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