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Perspective | Mebane Foundation grant supports Wolfpack Literacy Partnership and Yadkin County Schools

“What would it take to get every single student in Yadkin County Schools reading on or above grade level? And does a question like that excite you?” Dr. Dennis Davis, Ph.D. asked a room full of Yadkin County elementary and middle school teachers.

Davis, associate professor of literacy education at the NC State College of Education, is recruiting teachers for a new partnership between the college and Yadkin County Schools (YCS) called the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership which will work to improve reading proficiency in the district by helping teachers become literacy leaders.

Funded by a two-year grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation totaling $575,183, the Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership will use a cohort-based Master of Education program to enable 20 teachers with Yadkin County Schools to gain the expertise necessary to effectively implement evidence-based literacy instruction, assessment, and intervention in the elementary grades —  all expenses paid. Classes will begin in the fall of 2020.

However, this partnership is much more than just a pathway to a master’s degree. The partnership will foster teachers’ knowledge and skills to form a network of teacher-leaders who will collaborate during and after the program to help district leaders identify solutions to the barriers that affect student literacy learning in the county.

Third grade students Kayden Cheek, Willow Schroeder, Lillian Wood, Jimena Rojas, Bailey Williams, Mirana Lankford engrossed in literacy lesson.

“Our ultimate goal isn’t just to help these 20 individual teachers get better at teaching in their classrooms,” Davis said. “It’s to create a community of teachers who are really savvy and skilled in using their expertise collectively, so the whole district benefits.”

This new partnership is one that Yadkin County Schools Superintendent Todd Martin believes will have a lasting impact in the area.

“We are extremely excited about the partnership between the NC State College of Education, the Mebane Foundation and Yadkin County Schools,” Martin said. “We believe this partnership — which will result in 20 of our teachers receiving master’s degrees — will have a lasting impact on students in the county. Our teachers will be better prepared to implement literacy instruction, assessment, and intervention. This can only benefit our students, especially those who are in the early stages of learning how to read.”

Larry Colbourne, president of the Foundation, can’t think of a better, more appropriate location for such an investment.

“The Mebane Foundation had been exploring opportunities for a partnership with NC State’s College of Education for more than a year,” said Colbourne. “When Dr. Davis approached me with this unique partnership opportunity, I immediately thought of Yadkin County Schools. The county is the epicenter for Unifi’s global operations, and much of the corpus of this foundation can be traced back to the wealth Mr. Mebane accumulated as a founder of Unifi. I can’t think of a better way to give back to Yadkin County.”

Courtney Elementary kindergartner Heidy Benitez concentrating on a literacy assignment.

The Yadkin Wolfpack Literacy Partnership deepens the Foundation’s commitment to Yadkin County and YCS. In 2017, the Mebane Charitable Foundation provided a $70,000 grant and Unifi contributed an additional $30,000 to YCS to provide comprehensive training to all 18 of the county’s K-6 Exceptional Children’s teachers in delivering the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP), a research-based multisensory structured language approach to teaching reading developed by the Hill Center of Durham. An additional $57,000 was granted this school year to train 10 reading interventionists in HillRAP and to purchase 60 iPads as well as to purchase Letterland, a phonics-based approach to teaching reading, writing and spelling, for the County’s 12 pre-K classrooms.

Teachers will participate in online classes and face-to-face seminars, as well as gain supervised intervention experiences through the Wolfpack Readers afterschool program. Davis said that providing time for teachers to interact with students through the Wolfpack Readers program will give them an opportunity to immediately practice the skills they are learning through their coursework, which is not always possible in their classroom settings.

“We’ve been really intentional about making sure there’s always a place where teachers can be a little more experimental so that they can immediately try out these ideas with real students and think about how to hone their expertise,” he said. “Then, when they do have the opportunity to build it into their classrooms, they’re doing it with more forethought and experience.”

Although the project focuses on early literacy, Davis said that a few middle school teachers will likely be among the 20 invited to join the cohort.

Data shows that fewer than 60% of students in North Carolina are proficient in reading by the end of third grade. This means a large portion of students ultimately advance to middle schools without the necessary reading skills. Participation of middle school teachers could allow for literacy specialists to be available to help students outside of an elementary school setting, which has been historically uncommon, Davis said.

“It’s always been important to me that we think about older readers who are having difficulties because we can’t just let them continue to fall further behind,” he said.

Clarissa Howard, a third-grade teacher at Jonesville Elementary who has five years of teaching experience, understands the needs firsthand.

“As a past struggling reader from Yadkin County, I understand the frustration that comes with not knowing words on a page. Had it not been for the educators in this district, I would have never been able to gain the skills and confidence I needed to pursue my passion. Ultimately, I want my students to look back and feel the same pride in their education.”

Clarissa Howard, third grade teacher at Jonesville Elementary, teaches literacy.

“I became an educator to make a difference in students’ lives,” Howard further explained. “I feel in order to continue to watch them flourish, I need to provide them with reading instruction that allows them to become confident in themselves. That confidence will lay the foundation in different aspects of their lives. For that reason, I feel compelled to further my education at NC State. Because let’s face it, as an educator, I will forever be a student.”

The teachers who attended the information session were excited about what the opportunity means for both themselves and their students.

“This new partnership between the Mebane Foundation, Yadkin County Schools, and NC State College of Education is an amazing opportunity,” said Hannah Cox, a 7th-year teacher who teaches a K-1 combination class at Courtney Elementary School. “I have always been interested in pursuing my master’s degree, but financially it wasn’t a wise decision. As I began my career in education, I discovered that there are many things I wanted to learn more about concerning students’ reading and writing development.

“This degree in New Literacies & Global Learning from NC State would help me strengthen my knowledge of literacy development, which would, in turn, help me grow stronger readers & writers at a crucial age. Bringing this information back home to Yadkin County would benefit my personal classroom, as well as many others in our district. As a result, we hope to see more students proficient in reading. Thanks to the Mebane Foundation, this cohort of 20 educators will make quite an impact on the current & future students of Yadkin County Schools.”

Lindsay Harper, who teaches kindergarten at Courtney and is also in her seventh year teaching, said, “Having the opportunity to obtain my master’s degree, with the financial help from the Mebane Foundation, would be an honor. The thoughts of progressing to a master’s level was not financially viable for me. This opportunity will enhance my skills to improve early reading instruction and literacy development in my students, and the students in my county. I will gain further knowledge, to collaborate with teachers of the county, to give each student the resources they need to be successful. My commitment to the success of the children in Yadkin County is both professional and personal. My husband and I are invested in this county because our child, and future children, will be recipients of the success of this program.” 

Hannah Cox, a seventh-year teacher who teaches a K-1 combination class at Courtney Elementary School works with student Joselin De La Sancha.

School administrators will play a role in the project through workshops that will help them better understand some of the terminology and principles of effective literacy instruction. It’s an idea Davis said he borrowed from Wolfpack WORKS, another NC State College of Education literacy initiative that kicked off its second year by conducting a series of workshops for school leaders.

Assistant Professor of literacy education, Jill Grifenhagen, Ph.D., is the principal investigator of the Wolfpack WORKS project while Ann Harrington, Ph.D., teaching associate professor of reading education, and Paola Sztajn, Ph.D., associate dean for research and innovation, serve as co-principal investigators.

The decision to bring the Wolfpack Literacy Partnership project to Yadkin County builds upon Wolfpack WORKS’ efforts in rural areas.

The partnership will also serve as a pilot test of a literacy leadership development model that can be replicated as other districts in NC are looking to cultivate transformative expertise in their schools.

“This will hopefully be the first of many district-related cohorts,” Davis said. “If we can work with districts and build up a concentrated amount of expertise in a group of teachers who are then empowered to help district leadership make decisions and inform the curricula, I think we could make some pretty good headway in improving early reading achievement.”

Jennifer Hemric, vice-chairman of the YCS Board of Education expressed her gratitude to the Foundation for supporting this opportunity.

“This exclusive program for Yadkin County Schools is an amazing opportunity for our teachers to further their education.  These teachers will be literacy leaders in their schools. Through the advanced training of our teachers and the after-school tutoring component of the program, we will be able to help our students reach their fullest potential. This investment by the Mebane Charitable Foundation will pay dividends for many years to come in Yadkin County.”

Editor’s note: The Mebane Foundation supports the work of EducationNC. For more on the Mebane Foundation’s work in Yadkin County, click here and here.

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.
Janine Bowen

Janine Bowen is a writer and editor with the NC State College of Education’s marketing and communication team. She grew up in New York, where she covered education for a local newspaper before moving to Raleigh, where she now writes about research and faculty at the NC State College of Education.