Davie County Public Schools got some good news last year. After the 2017-18 End-of-Grade test results were announced, the county discovered it had moved up from 45th to 17th out of all 115 districts in the state for third-grade reading proficiency. Cooleemee Elementary was singled out in those results for moving into the top 4 percent of all elementary schools in the state for academic growth.
This growing success in the district is being bolstered by a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation to improve kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency in the third grade. It’s called DavieLEADS, and it’s a five-year grant with a specific goal to get kindergarten readiness from 70 percent to 90 percent and reading proficiency in third grade from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2022.
That’s the big picture, but the changes happen on the ground, and walking around Cooleemee Elementary, you can feel the excitement buzzing in the hallways.
In the second year of the grant, Cooleemee is focused on guided reading. This combines writing, phonics, word-work, and other lessons together in specialized groups that focus on specific children and the reading levels they’re on. For instance, you may see a group of kids gathered at a table with a teacher, reading a specific book. That book will be one that is suitable to the reading level those children are on. The teacher will do a lesson with them, and then that group will be replaced with a different set of students reading a different book suitable for their specific reading level.
“It’s taking all the components children need to read — balanced literacy — and putting together the components,” said Cynthia Stone, the principal of the school.
The work this year follows on the foundation set last year when Cooleemee focused on Professional Learning Communities (PLC). That’s essentially where teachers can get together at the school to discuss the standards they’re working with in the classrooms and get a better grasp on how to teach to them. Kerry Blackwelder, a reading specialist who has been at Cooleemee for 23 years, said those PLCs were essential.
“Reading a standard and telling [teachers] what to do and having them do it is different than all of us coming together and talking about it and understanding it,” she said. “I’ve been a reading teacher for a long time, and I felt like I knew my standards. I didn’t know my standards like I should have. So I feel like I’m a better teacher because I understand what I need to ask my kids and do with my kids for them to understand that standard.”
The money from DavieLEADs includes funding for two literacy coaches and two professional consultants in the district. Those consultants were instrumental in helping lead PLCs last year, which put Cooleemee and other schools on a firm footing to focus on guided reading this year.
“When we were trying to run PLCs ourselves, we didn’t really have the training,” said Amy Stokes, another reading specialist at the school. “We made strides, but it’s been just so much more cohesive.”
She said the PLCs and the work under DavieLEADS has made a big difference because the staff of the school all feel like they have a common purpose.
“We’re following our standards, we’re all working together, and everyone is collaborating and working together to help our students grow,” she said.
Nancy Scoggin was one of the consultants who came in to work under the DavieLEADS grant. She was assigned Cooleemee, which she said was already ahead of the curve when she arrived. The grant lasts only five years, and after that the school will have to find a way to keep the gains they’ve made in that time. Scoggin said they are well positioned to do so because they have collaborated in such a way that teachers at every grade level have their fingers on the pulses of their students.
“When we talk about sustainability … every grade level is aware of what the next grade level is dealing with,” she said. “They use every single piece of data in this school that they possibly can. It’s not done with a ‘gotcha.’ It’s done with ‘let’s look at where we are. How do we need to arrange the schedule to use every single person in this building to get every inch of growth that we can?'”
One of the keys to knowing the kids is working with them in small groups during the guided reading sessions. Entering a classroom, you may see a teacher reading a sentence over and over again, substituting one word and asking the students if it makes sense.
Another tool you’ll see in classrooms is Letterland. This is a phonics-based program that aims to teach students aged 3 to 8 how to read, write, and spell. Letterland has characters based on different letters that live together in Letterland. Stories featuring the letter characters explain phonics to children in a way that’s more entertaining than your typical lesson, and thus sticks in the minds of students.
Of course, all of this reading and learning wouldn’t be possible without books, and Cooleemee has a lot, thanks in part to funds from the Mebane Foundation. About six years ago, Stone and others were building a book room in a small space at the school. Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, came over and asked how he could help.
Now the room is huge, with books for every conceivable reading level.
“The teacher can come and pull resources on that level specific to what the student needs,” Stone said.
Stone said that one of the things she appreciates most about DavieLEADS is flexibility. Colbourne is a familiar face around the school, and if teachers or leaders need an adjustment to how they use the money from the grant, they can talk directly to him and work it out. She also appreciates that the grant isn’t just about getting teachers new resources or lesson plans. It’s about showing them how to teach differently, and hopefully, more effectively.
“My teachers are getting skill sets,” Stone said. “They’re not just getting a material to consume.”
Editor’s Note: The Mebane Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.Mebane Foundation