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Perspective | DavieLEADS professional development provides lifeline for teachers during pandemic

When Davie County Schools launched DavieLEADS four years ago, they could not have known that the initiative’s professional development component would provide a lifeline to teachers as a pandemic forced them to quickly adapt to new ways of teaching.

“No one could have been prepared for a pandemic. However, a lot of what we had put into place prior to March 13th through DavieLEADS, like PLC meetings, guided reading, Heggerty, and Letterland, carried us through the spring and laid a foundation for our teachers as they now offer a combination of face-to-face and virtual instruction,” explained Jennifer Lynde, chief academic officer for Davie County Schools, located in Mocksville, North Carolina.

Professional development has been a primary focus of DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), a five-year early literacy initiative funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation, since the beginning. The goals of the initiative are to improve kindergarten readiness from 70% to 90% and to increase reading proficiency in third grade from 66% to 80% by 2022.

To meet those goals, the grant includes funding for training as well as specialized support staff, including two full-time literacy coaches and two professional consultants, to develop and build the professional capacity of the kindergarten through third-grade classroom teachers in Davie County Schools (DCS). Each year’s professional development focus builds upon the previous year. 

PLC meetings enhance collaboration

That training has proven vital as teachers master new methods of teaching and seek to fill achievement gaps caused by the sudden transition to virtual instruction. Of particular importance are the weekly professional learning community (PLC) meetings, which allow teachers to share expertise and work collaboratively to improve teaching skills and drive the academic performance of students. During the meetings, teachers work as a team to clarify the state’s educational standards and to determine the best way to teach them, create common formative assessments (CFAs), analyze data, and plan extra assistance for students not meeting grade-level expectations.

Since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, Davie County Schools has worked diligently to provide both face-to-face and virtual instruction. Currently, pre-K students have the option to be in school five days a week, elementary school students four days a week with remote learning on Wednesdays, and middle and high school students are on an A-B schedule that splits instruction into three days online and two days face-to-face. The school system established DCS Virtual for families who preferred full-time remote learning.

Offering both options required a shift in personnel with some teachers changing grade levels or schools and others transitioning to full-time virtual instruction. All agree that the shift was made easier because of the district’s established and standardized PLC process.

First grade PLC meeting at William R. Davie Elementary School. Courtesy of The Mebane Foundation

“I didn’t know what PLCs would look like as I moved into virtual teaching, but no ground was lost,” said Kristy Brown, a DCS virtual first grade teacher. “Our new team picked up like we had been together forever, and we have continued to have the weekly conversations about the standards and students’ data.”

“We have six elementary schools, two with new principals and a third with a principal who is new to elementary school, as well as a new coordinator for DCS Virtual,” said Lynde. “Being able to continue what we had in place prior to the pandemic, even with new leadership, speaks volumes in itself.”

PLCs were the primary focus during the first year of the initiative, and Lynde recalls how difficult some of those early meetings were, as the DavieLEADS consultants and literacy coaches pushed teachers to delve more deeply into the standards and to examine their methods of teaching them. “As they became more comfortable with the meetings and the process being used to clarify the standards, and began to see the benefits in their classrooms, they embraced the process and it became second nature,” she said.

“One teacher shared that she was so thankful for the clarifying documents. As we went into remote learning, she was able to utilize the clarifying document, previously created collaboratively by her team, as she helped plan her piece of the instruction,” said DavieLEADS Literacy Coach Amy Spade with a smile.

Due to the pandemic, “our teachers are seeing the value of PLCs more than ever,” Lynde continued. “PLCs are not just something we said we need to do or an initiative we started that we have to carry through. Many teachers you talk to say ‘I feel like I’m a new teacher all over again,’ and we know how much new teachers depend on each other. With the pandemic, the PLCs are even more crucial because of the collaboration piece that teachers are relying on more than ever.”

Sunni Collins, instructional coach at William R. Davie Elementary School, agreed. “Our collaborative conversations allow us to support each other and think about instructional practices from different perspectives while analyzing student learning and planning instruction to meet their needs. Having already built trusting relationships and a foundation of collaboration around student outcomes has been extremely beneficial in addressing the learning gaps created by the school shut-downs,” she said.

While DavieLEADS and the professional learning community meetings focus on language arts, Spade said the benefits have carried over into other subjects like math. “There are a lot more gaps in math because of the way it is structured, particularly when you talk about standards being taught remotely compared to in-person … Had our teachers not done the work in ELA (English language arts), they wouldn’t have the clarifying procedure to carry over to other subjects.”

Letterland plays vital role in filling gaps from last spring

The value of the DavieLEADS initiative extends beyond PLCs. Another first-year focus, Letterland, a phonics-based program that teaches students how to read, write, and spell, has also played a vital role during the pandemic, according to DavieLEADS Literacy Coach Renee Hennings-Gonzalez. During the spring, she and Spade worked on modifying Letterland Smartboard slides so that teachers could still record themselves teaching Letterland lessons to fidelity and upload them to their learning management system for the students during remote instruction.

“This fall, our K-2 population has had four days face-to-face and one day of remote instruction a week. We’ve taken the Letterland slides and edited them further to make sure that the program is met with fidelity so that students are still getting access to all of the content in order to prevent forward gaps,” said Hennings-Gonzalez. “This supports teachers in meeting grade-level criteria while catching students up from any gaps from the spring.”

Heggerty a welcome addition to early reading instruction

In addition to Letterland, students are reaping the benefits of Heggerty, a phonemic awareness program backed by both research and science that was a focus of DavieLEADS last year.  A phoneme is a speech sound. It is the smallest unit of language and has no inherent meaning. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds. Understanding that letters in words are systematically represented by sounds is a critical first step in learning to read and to write. 

The curriculum was introduced as a pilot program in a few pre-K and kindergarten classes right before virtual instruction began. As a result of the positive response, it is now being used in all pre-K and first-grade classes and is also helping to combat and prevent learning gaps.

“We are so grateful to the Mebane Foundation for funding the DavieLEADS initiative. If we had not already had so many of these foundational pieces in place, I think adapting during the pandemic would have been a lot more challenging,” said Lynde.

Jeanna White
Jeanna White is a writer for the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville. Ten years as a substitute teacher for students from preschool through high school has given her a unique perspective and passion for education. White graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism.