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Superintendent Johnson allocates funds for literacy training and coaching

For Summer Riley, teaching young kids how to read at Cook Literacy Model School means layering tools.

“It’s been really interesting to take the time to get to know each tool well and then take the best parts of that and make it into a program that’s comprehensive for our population,” said Riley, a K-2 teacher leader at the Winston-Salem elementary school. 

One of those tools, the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) intervention, which targets students who are struggling the most, will be available to every district in the state next year. The Hill Center, through funds from the state’s Read to Achieve program and The Mebane Foundation, will train 400 educators in the program, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson announced Monday.

Johnson also said the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) will partner with North Carolina State University College of Education to help beginning K-2 teachers in 15 low-performing local districts in reading instruction. The program, called Wolfpack WORKS (Ways to Optimize Reading/Writing for Kids Statewide), will also use Read to Achieve funds and combines in-person coaching with N.C. State professionals and online training.

“We know that it’s really complex work to teach children to read in the early years of school, and so we’ve found that induction programs that give beginning teachers support in that effort can really help them not only reach that optimal level of instruction early but stay in the profession longer,” said Jill Grifenhagen, an N.C. State professor in literacy education.

Some of those resources will be available to all teachers, Johnson said, through online modules. Johnson said teachers who are not in the early grades often need to know how to reach struggling readers.

“This is personal for me, because I was a ninth grade teacher in a school in one of the high-needs areas in Charlotte, and I had students who, while they might be 13, 14, 15, 16, and even 17, were reading on fourth and fifth grade levels,” Johnson said. “I did not have the training to address those literacy needs so it’s important for me, and from listening to teachers who are also in that situation, that they have access to those resources.”

Johnson said he realized the Read to Achieve funds set aside for early literacy — at least $15 million — were not being utilized when he took office. In March, Johnson allocated $4.8 million of those funds to K-3 teachers for reading materials. He said he decided on the two professional development initiatives based on needs he heard from teachers as he travelled across the state.

Johnson said he has also heard concerns that echoed his original agenda when he ran for his position.  

“I reaffirmed a lot of the positions I campaigned on,” Johnson said of what he has heard during his listening tour. “We are testing too much. We are taking actions at the state agency to reduce testing. We need to promote career pathways for students. A four-year college degree is not the only path to success, especially in the economy today…We need to work on innovative calendar solutions.”

Riley praised the ongoing support for beginning teachers. She said training is helpful but continued feedback and support for teachers as they implement a tool or strategy is necessary to make a difference in the classroom. 

“I think across the state there’s a lot of great training available, but it’s the follow-up pieces that we really have seen a floundering of implementation with,” Riley said. 

Beth Anderson, The Hill Center’s executive director, said the statewide initiative will train individuals to take the tool back to their districts. Anderson said she sees this exposure to high-quality instruction as a first step. 

“It’s to deepen their knowledge,” Anderson said. “We hope to build upon the foundation in the future.”

Darah Whyte, communications director at The Hill Center, said fully certifying a teacher normally costs $3,000 and initial training costs $750. 

More than any specific tool, Riley said it is the connection between the educator and student that gets kids excited about reading. In the kindergarten class where she currently serves as a substitute, she has seen students who could not read at the beginning of the year turn into lovers of reading.

“I use the idea all the time of if I could shrink you down and you could crawl inside the book, what would be the page you want to live on?” Riley said. “They’ve really adapted that idea of, when I open it up, it’s an adventure. I think that all the components that we’ve used have helped to create that piece, but I think the piece that’s the same throughout time is the relationship piece.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the cost of HillRAP training. Fully certifying a teacher costs $3,000 and the initial training costs $750.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.