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Parents want better reading instruction, more teacher training in CSD

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Parents want better reading instruction, more teacher training in CSD

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated. 

Decatur, GA  — Parents have recently shared concerns about the City Schools of Decatur reading program and have asked the district to fully embrace the science of reading, train all elementary school teachers in structured literacy practices and eliminate balanced literacy programs.

At the April 12 Decatur School Board meeting, several parents raised concerns during public comment about the reading program, particularly when it comes to students who have dyslexia or other special needs.

Emily Beard said her son, who is dyslexic, was denied a 504 plan at Clairemont Elementary School despite multiple disabilities.

“We have been told that in Decatur kids have to fail in order to qualify for special ed,” Beard said. “The worst part of being a parent to a struggling reader is the confidence piece. One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is try not to sob when my six-year-old would put his head down on his desk daily and declare, ‘I must be the stupidest kid in my class’ when being asked to read aloud and was unable to do so.”

Beard’s son now attends The Schenck School. This year, there are 13 kids from CSD’s attendance zone at the school and others attend various other schools, she said.

“At least a school bus full of Decatur children are gong to school elsewhere because this system has effectively failed them,” Beard said. “Dozens of Decatur children are being pulled out of their neighborhood schools and driven all over Atlanta to attend costly private schools for remediation. Most of these kids do not return to City Schools of Decatur.”

Kate Reddy has also pulled her third grade child with dyslexia out of the district and enrolled him in a private school that provides an intensive remediation approach through the phonics-based, structured literacy he needs, she said. Reddy hopes to return her child to public school after a couple of years.

“In order to truly be the model school district I know Decatur can be, we will need more than this patchwork training approach,” Reddy said. “We will need a truly systematic plan for creating a supportive curriculum for all students, with a corresponding strategic and evaluation plan.”

Meagan Swingle is a parent volunteer and the communications chair for Decoding Dyslexia Georgia, a grassroots organization led by parents. The organization aims to empower families and inform policymakers on best practices to identify, remediate and support students with dyslexia.

“Reading is the doorway to education,” Swingle said. “It’s shocking and extremely disappointing that CSD continues to invest in balanced literacy in 2022, when decades of cognitive science research show us that a structured literacy approach is the most effective way for all children to learn to read, not just those with dyslexia, but all students.”

Swingle added that the stories shared at the April 12 meeting were just a fraction of the number of families who left the district or who have supplemented their child’s education with private tutors.

“CSD seems far too comfortable denying special education services for the purported reason that a child is not ‘far enough behind to qualify,’ while knowing full well that these families are making sure their child doesn’t fall behind by paying for private tutoring outside of school,” Swingle said.

At the April 26 school board work session, Courtney Simon, director of ELA and social studies, along with elementary school teachers, gave an overview of the district’s reading program. CSD has adopted the American Reading Company curriculum, and is monitoring the development of Expeditionary Learning and the IB units of inquiry, Simon said. 

The final phase of the K-5 adoption of the ARC curriculum will be the implementation of two final units during the 2022-2023 school year.

The district has also focused on dyslexia and how it’s screened, supported and monitored in CSD.

“CSD is concluding its second year of being selected as a participant of the Georgia Department of Education dyslexia pilot,” Simon said. “There have been requests for secondary school screeners for characteristics of dyslexia, appropriate services to be provided for students, and teachers trained on a secondary level to administer these services. The district is currently researching our options and resources that may be available.”

In accordance with Senate Bill 48, the district created a dyslexia pilot program in 2021. The goal of the program is to identify students who may have characteristics of dyslexia and provide support to them as early as possible.

“The results from these assessments are not intended or designed to diagnose dyslexia. Their purpose is to identify children who are experiencing reading difficultly that may require extra support, and ensure support is targeted to each student’s [instructional] needs,” District Reading Coach Katrina Smith-Paggett said at the May 11, 2021, school board meeting. “The dyslexia pilot is data driven, and student centered. Our two tier one programs…Fundations and ARC Core both support students with characteristics of dyslexia, while building all students literacy skills with research based instructional practice.”

Part of adopting the ARC curriculum included implementing the ARC literacy lab, and the first few weeks of that have been completed.

“Additionally, we are working on a common K-2 writing rubric because we do not have one for kindergarten and there is not one for the state,” Simon said. “We also recommended literacy block templates created for the K-5 schools because for the ARC curriculum, students have to have 120 minutes of literacy. We worked with each school, K-5, to look at their master schedules and see how we can maximize the literacy and mathematics time.”

The district team and the secondary department ELA chairs will begin discussions of researching secondary ELA curriculum.

In addition to ARC, the teachers also utilize Orton-Gillingham training, Fundations training and the Heggerty tool.

The Fundations program is a multisensory, structured literacy curriculum that is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach and ensures that all students receive instruction based on students’ instructional needs.

“The combination of all of these curriculums that we’re using enable teachers to easily differentiate during reading and provide structured literacy during phonics. Phonics instruction is explicit, and it’s systematic with a combination of Fundations, OG and Heggerty,” said Julie Parker, first grade at Westchester. “Daily instruction includes drilling the deck and dictation.”

After the deck drill, students will do a quick mini lesson, move into dictation and put what they learn into writing.

“Heggerty is a tool that brings in yet another element of phonemic awareness,” Parker said. “They are auditory mini lessons that focus on students manipulating sounds into words. The ARC curriculum has a variety of culturally diverse read aloud sand level readers that provide differentiated reading instruction. Teachers use the toolkits provided to help guide instruction within each of the levels.”

Angelina Prophet, grade 3-5 EIP teacher at Fifth Avenue Upper Elementary School, added that students are receiving structured phonics instruction through Fundations.

“The program allows students who need decoding skills to receive daily instruction in a manner that has been shown through science of reading research as effective for all students. So, all of them are getting it, but the ones that really need it are getting extra,” Prophet said.

The ARC literacy lab also establishes a reading workshop structure, and has students working on reading, writing word work, vocabulary, while teachers can do small group, she said.

“As an intervention teacher, I’ve been able to customize the ARC program by combining my newly acquired knowledge of the science of reading and small group lessons provided by ARC,” Prophet said. “I’ve been able to incorporate multisensory individualized systemic instruction that allowed several of my students to actually exit EIP and ultimately, I’ve had several students that no longer need tiered interventions at all.”

CSD Literacy Coach Gail Hardwick explained that Fundations is all phonics-based, which is carried over into the ARC curriculum.

“Of course, we want students to get familiar with what a book looks like and those types of things if they’re read to me students,” Hardwick said. “However, when giving instruction to students, we’re following scope and sequence of phonics, so when the students are reading they are looking at the first letter of the word, they are sounding out the word. We do not encourage students to look at pictures to find out what the story’s about. When we’re analyzing students’ reading, we’re looking at the skills that they have attained.”

The district is not teaching students to try to get meaning by looking at pictures to read the book, that’s not how ARC trains teachers nor is it the OG methodology, which is what CSD asks teachers to do, Hardwick said.

“I do know that many years ago, that was a way to teach, that was best practices before we learned all about the science of reading, and so it’s probably maybe people who are still hanging onto something. That’s most likely where it’s coming from, but as our district is moving passed that, we are using science to guide us in our instruction,” Hardwick said.

Assistant Superintendent Kristy Beam added that this is a comprehensive reading program.

“We are not just teaching structured literacy, we are teaching components including comprehension. There are components of balanced literacy,” Beam said. “We are doing independent reading with our students that can read. [For] our students that are still decoding, we’re still doing small group of instruction with them.”

Some concerns have not come from what is happening in our classrooms, it has come from the product itself, Beam added.

“They are good quality materials, and we’ve gotten lots of positive feedback about the diversity of characters and the rich texts and all of that stuff,” she added. “It’s the training of our teachers to be able to utilize the programs effectively for our students that’s so important. Many of our teachers are doing that masterfully.”

The school system recently got a $60,000 grant from the state that will go toward providing teachers with an introductory level training on the science of reading and Orton-Gillingham strategies so that they understand how to implement those, with the hopes they will want to go deeper. CSD will also continue to offer LETRS training to a cohort willing to do that and offer the Orton-Gillingham 70-hour training, Beam said.

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