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Perspective | Edgecombe County Schools invests in HillRAP to address foundational reading gaps

Studies show that reading skills are the foundation of all education. Success in school, the workplace, and life is dramatically enhanced for children who can read at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

Given the projected learning loss experienced by many students due to school closures, remote learning, and inconsistent attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for intensive, gap-closing reading intervention is more urgent than ever.

Edgecombe County Schools initiates HillRAP expansion

In response, Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS) in eastern North Carolina is expanding and strengthening the availability of HillRAP (Hill Reading Achievement Program) for its elementary and middle school students with persistent reading challenges through a three-year scale-up of HillRAP tutoring.

The district began implementing HillRAP in 2014, targeting third to fifth grade students who struggled in their end-of-grade tests. Based on its success, the program was extended to include students in first through eighth grades who would benefit from intensive reading support.

Through this new initiative, six dedicated HillRAP tutors are serving 150 students who have significant foundational reading gaps but would not otherwise be able to receive the intervention. ECPS plans to expand this project to nine tutors teaching 180 students next school year and 12 tutors reaching 240 students in 2023-24. These tutors complement the ECPS teachers who are HillRAP-trained and deliver the program in their schools to an estimated 100 additional students as their schedules allow.

Students & educators meet challenges together

Many of the HillRAP tutors are retired ECPS teachers whom the district has specifically targeted for this initiative. Three of six teachers in year one have previous HillRAP training and experience, including one who is a Hill-certified Level 2 Mentor. Without this opportunity, these veteran teachers would most likely no longer be serving ECPS students and schools.

Developed by Hill Learning Center in Durham, HillRAP leverages technology and quality professional development to deliver teacher-led, individualized, small group instruction to students with persistent reading difficulties, including those with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning differences.

Decades of research have shown that explicit phonics instruction benefits all early readers, particularly those who struggle to read. Hill’s instructional philosophy is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach, which focuses on teaching students the structure of language while incorporating precision teaching techniques, including charting and graphing student progress. Using Hill assessments, an individualized instructional plan is created for each student. Progress is continually monitored as students work toward mastery of skills.

Funds are invested in student success

When ECPS reached out about the possibility of leveraging their federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to expand HillRAP to serve more students, Hill Learning Center was immediately on board.

“Knowing how overwhelmed teachers and administrators were going to be addressing learning loss and foundational reading gaps while still navigating through a pandemic, we saw the potential impact dedicated HillRAP tutors could have by providing additional high quality, dedicated capacity,” said Beth Anderson, Hill’s executive director. “After years of working together, it is gratifying to see the teacher and tutor leadership that has taken hold — from hosting a family literacy night where parents participated in a HillRAP lesson with their children to active engagement in structured mentoring and peer learning. We are optimistic that by the end of this project, many, many more students will have made meaningful gains in reading.”

ESSER and Robert E. and Dorothy Z. Barnhill Family Fund

An initiative of this magnitude required a sizable investment in both philanthropic and federal funds. Hill and ECPS launched the project with $250,000 of the school system’s ESSER funds and $30,000 in previously committed funds from the Robert E. and Dorothy Z. Barnhill Family Fund, which has been supporting the deployment of HillRAP in ECPS since 2014.

To help the school system secure the final $250,000 needed to execute the program fully, the Barnhill Family Foundation went a step further, issuing an all-or-nothing match challenge of 50% of the remaining revenue gap.

“As a foundation, we had read so much about the importance of being able to read by third grade and the doors it opens for kids to thrive, and really wanted to address that situation,” said Erin Brewer, executive director of corporate and community outreach for the Barnhill Contracting Company. “When we were introduced to the Hill Learning Center and saw how well their small-group interventions worked for kids who were struggling to read and desperately needed to get caught up, we wanted to help implement the program in Edgecombe County Public Schools.”

She explained that this latest three-year grant is a result of the ever-increasing need caused by the pandemic.

“We have been thrilled with the results we’ve seen and advocate for Hill all of the time,” Brewer said. “We issued this grant challenge because we wanted Hill Learning Center to be on the map with other funders, and we wanted other funders to experience what we are doing. We already know that it has started conversations outside of Edgecombe County.”

The Mebane Foundation

The Mebane Foundation of Mocksville was quick to answer the call, promising $50,000 over the next two years based on the project’s strong alignment with its mission and an enduring friendship between Allen Mebane, founder of the Mebane Foundation, Robert E. Barnhill Jr. (Bob), founder of the Barnhill Family Foundation.

“Allen and Bob were leaders in their respective industries and were very good friends for a long time,” said Mebane Foundation President Larry Colbourne. “While Bob is still very active in the world of philanthropy, Allen’s foresight to create the foundation is allowing his legacy to live on and is enabling him to join forces with his very dear friend even today. I know he’d be proud of Bob for making the initial challenge, as that was Allen’s way of ensuring everybody had ‘skin in the game,’ thus affording more children the opportunity to succeed in life!” 

The Anonymous Trust also responded to the challenge with a two-year, $100,000 investment.

Grant funds provide training, technology, materials

The grant funds are being used to hire, train, coach, and support HillRAP tutors; train district and school administrators to recognize and support quality implementation; provide project coordination support within both Hill and ECPS; and purchase iPads, HillRAP app subscriptions, and supplemental materials.

HillRAP tutors and teachers will also participate in four 90-minute professional learning community (PLC) sessions during the school year. These sessions, facilitated by a retired ECPS HillRAP teacher who is also a certified Hill Master Mentor, provide an opportunity for HillRAP tutors and teachers to reflect on student data, ask questions, share resources, and build their collective capacity for solid implementation.

The tutors began implementing HillRAP with groups of four students, four to five days per week in October, after beginning-of-year testing. These sessions will continue until end-of -year testing in May. The goal is to provide at least 90 HillRAP sessions per group. The initiative’s success will be measured based on both implementation data (number of students, average number and length of HillRAP sessions) and student growth data, using the new, state-mandated mClass DIBELS 8 data.

Zina Pittman, a retired HillRAP master mentor, and current tutor, is an ardent proponent of what HillRAP means to both students and teachers. “I received my initial HillRAP training at a point in my career, where after 23 years of teaching, I was beginning to feel burned-out,” Pittman said. “I was looking for another breath of fresh air, and along came Hill. I can truly say that I was given the spark, the assurance, and the support needed to complete intensive training, to broaden my knowledge of the science of reading, and to discover tools that I didn’t realize I had as a reading teacher.” 

Closing foundational gaps in literacy

The educators involved with the project are thrilled to be able to provide this powerful intervention to many more of the ECPS students who need it most. 

“As the district’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) Coordinator, I was thrilled to learn that we would be expanding and strengthening the implementation of HillRAP,” said Lois Glass, ECPS HillRAP coordinator and  MTSS coordinator. “As I work with schools within the district, they commonly note the need for well-defined, evidence-based, efficient, and effective interventions to help close foundational gaps in literacy. HillRAP is exactly what we need to help us accomplish this goal. HillRAP is assisting us as we reimagine the future of our scholars.”

“It is both an honor and a pleasure to serve as a HillRAP teacher in ECPS,” said Stocks Elementary School HillRAP teacher and mentor Lisa Oakley. “This wonderful program provides our scholars with an opportunity to build the foundation needed to become more proficient readers. It is so rewarding to watch as my scholars begin to unlock the mystery of reading words. They are working every day to be the BEST readers they can be!”      

Wayne Barlow, a HillRAP tutor at Stocks Elementary School, added, “As a retired educator, I have never used a program that is comparable to HillRAP. As a tutor using this program, teaching a small group at different levels is amazing. Differentiated instruction can be achieved. Students are engaged at all times. The program gives instant data for tracking and monitoring your students. It is a great digital program for intervention that includes all the skills needed for a student to succeed. I recommend HillRAP for anyone working with struggling readers. ‘Learning Does Happen on the Hill.’”  

HillRAP students say thanks

However, the most poignant expressions of the ability HillRAP has to change students’ lives come from the students themselves:

  • “HillRAP helps me with my attitude. Now I don’t get so upset when I don’t know a word. I know I can fix it.” – Marian S.
  • “HillRAP is fun! I like saying, ‘I can, I will, I am, and I did!’ when I do my timed test.” – Zachary J.
  • “HillRAP helps me to learn to spell words.” – QuanZi K.
  • “It helps me to read books with some words that I don’t know. I feel happy when I learn more words.” – Dakota P.
  • “HillRAP is about having fun and reading at the same time.” – Grayson P.
  • “HillRAPmakes me glad when I say words right that I have said wrong before. It makes my heart happy!” – Terrance M.

“I can not thank our generous funders enough for the wonderful opportunity at a new lease on life!” Pittman said. “None of the success I feel that I am having nor the impact that I hope I am making in the lives of my scholars would be possible without you. Again, thank you for your thoughtfulness and generosity. I hope that you, too, will be “Forever Hill!”

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.