Education News

ACSD revitalizes literacy efforts

HEATHER GEBO

MIDDLEBURY — Children’s thoughts right now have turned to summer fun, but Addison Central School District educators are thinking ahead toward next fall and a new opportunity to lay a more solid literacy foundation for the district’s youngest students.

The chief architect of this effort is Heather Gebo, who for the past two years has served as ACSD’s literacy coordinator. She was hired, thanks to federal grant money, during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. District leaders saw Gebo as part of a strategy to minimize reading and language deficits that were expected to occur as students temporarily transitioned to virtual, and then hybrid, learning.

Gebo unveiled sobering literacy statistics — and a pathway to more successful student performance — in the “ACSD Foundational Literacy Report K-5,” delivered to the district board in June.

Her research indicates:

• The ACSD — as well as many school districts throughout the country — are seeing 30-40% of the student population score “below proficient” on standardized assessments.

“Certainly, COVID has made for extra challenges, but even if you look at the (pre-COVID) data, we have been seeing consistent drops over the past seven-eight years,” Gebo told the Independent. “We haven’t been able to come back from that quickly. It’s going to take time.”

• Elementary school students in the seven-town district are losing ground in an annual assessment called the Formative Assessment System for Teachers (FAST). It’s based on Vermont’s Common Core State Standards for literacy and math. It measures student comprehension in such areas as phonemic awareness, word recognition, grammar fluency and vocabulary.

According to figures provided by Gebo, 60% of ACSD kindergartners were meeting or exceeding the FAST reading benchmarks in 2015-2016, compared to 50% in 2021-2022. The FAST decline among first-graders during the same timeframe was 49% to 40%, and for second-graders 63% to 53%. The stats show that only fifth-graders saw any improvement in FAST performance during the same timeframe, with 71% meeting or exceeding proficiency in 2022, compared to 70% in 2015.

Similarly, ACSD students in grades three through eight have seen declining scores during the past six years in the Smarter Balanced Assessment test administered each spring.

“The scores on these universal screeners and state standardized assessments indicate how the literacy scores in ACSD have dropped or fluctuated little over the past few years,” Gebo said. “This provides a baseline for our work ahead to intentionally shift our instructional practices and enable our students to reach their full potential through evidence-based literacy instruction.”

Gebo’s plan to turn back these trends includes intensifying literacy efforts in grades K-2 and offering more professional development opportunities to educators.

“If we can develop that foundation in those early grades, we will see those (literacy scores) increase … as students are able to master skills at an early level and take on more complex texts as they get into the upper grades,” Gebo reasoned. “It’s about trying to catch kids before they’re falling behind. There are diagnostic assessments that can pinpoint student needs sooner.”

She noted that in the past educators had to demonstrate tremendous gaps in student performance between grade levels, but intervention is more critical at a younger age.

“A student wasn’t going to be evaluated unless they were a grade or two behind the (literacy) benchmarks or standards,” she said. “That can’t happen in the early grades; we need to catch them as soon as we realize there might be some challenge the student is having and pinpoint where we can help that student.”

Prior to taking her current job as an architect of the ACSD’s literacy efforts, Gebo was in the classroom. She joined the district in 2017 as a first-grade teacher at Mary Hogan Elementary School. The ACSD provides preK-12 public education to children in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

She explained her first step in her new job was to understand the reading programs in place at elementary schools throughout the district and then conduct what she called a “basic needs assessment.”

She found some foundational, K-2 literacy programs that had been consistent throughout the district, including a “Fundations” phonics program.

“(Fundations) seemed like a place to start, to understand where all of the schools were, because we’re working toward more consistent practices and assessments, so we can have deeper conversations about the data, and more consistency around evidence-based, research-backed strategies and instruction,” Gebo said.

“To (determine) the direction we wanted to go, we had to figure out where we’ve been so far.”

She also surveyed teachers and elementary school administrators. Through a grant, the ACSD was able to update some of its Fundations phonics kits. But more work needs to be done, she noted.

“We do need to make some shifts in instructional practices and look for more ways to have consistency throughout the district,” Gebo said.

Recommendations in Gebo’s 2023 ACSD Foundational Literacy Report include:

• Develop district-wide scope and sequences around essential components of literacy instruction to include phonemic awareness, phonics, word study, writing instruction, and reading comprehension through integrated content instruction.

• Fund additional literacy resources to ensure equitable access to high-quality, evidence-based instructional materials that build content knowledge, update classroom libraries, and explore technology resources.

• Update the ACSD’s assessment system to include “more comprehensive, consistent literacy assessments district-wide, including screeners, diagnostics, progress monitoring, and professional development for teachers to use the data from assessments.”

• Invest in professional development for educators around evidence-based best practices with reading and writing instruction.

Gebo noted advances in literacy instruction are outpacing the training that many teachers received while earning their degrees. That’s why Gebo is emphasizing a kind of back-to-school approach for current ACSD educators to brush up on their literacy teaching skills. 

“Our teacher-prep programs across the country haven’t thus far caught up with the research that’s showing how students learn how to read,” she said.

Gebo acknowledged some of her recommendations will require more financial outlay at a time when the ACSD — like many other districts nationwide — will be losing a lot of federal pandemic-related funding.

It will give the ACSD board more food for thought when it starts fashioning the upcoming 2024-2025 budget.

Barb Wilson, chair of the ACSD board, said she “found the (literacy) report to be very informative and I look forward to following our progress towards improving our literacy skills across the district.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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