Tom Smart, Deseret News
SANDY — Educators in the Canyons School District were concerned in the spring of 2010 when many of the district's youngest students hadn't made significant progress by year-end.
In the district's first year of operation, only about 65 percent of its kindergartners had learned the reading skills they needed in order to be prepared for first grade. That's based on a web-based reading test students take at the end of the school year. Students also take it at the beginning and middle of the year.
"We found over the course of the school year our students weren't making significant progress," said Amber Roderick Landward, Canyons director of evidence-based learning in elementary schools.
To get those number soaring, the district implemented intense professional development for all the kindergarten teachers in its 29 elementary schools.
"We focused mainly on phonemic awareness — that's the ability to hear and understand sounds," Landward said.
Teachers learned to analyze test results data and tailor instruction to serve struggling students. Each teacher received 28 hours of professional development, along with hours of coaching from individual school instructional coaches.
The results were compelling, Lanward said. As the school year went on, it was obvious students were retaining information, and teachers saw noticeable improvement. By year-end, 85 percent of kindergartners district-wide were prepared for first grade in terms of reading.
"They really had a powerful experience being able to watch their students grow," she said.
Another reason for the improvement, Landward said, was the opportunity the trainings gave kindergarten teachers to connect with one another and discuss what was working and what wasn't.
Because many schools only have one or two kindergarten teachers, "you often find yourself isolated," she said. "Over the course of the school year they loved the opportunity that they had to get together with their kindergarten colleagues."
Crescent Elementary Principal Debbie Shumard said the professional development prepared teachers at her school to instruct students with all kinds of reading backgrounds. Some enter kindergarten able to read, others might know the letters and sounds, while some have had no exposure to any of it.
"This has been successful because it now gives the teachers the skills to reach all three groups," Shumard said.
Based on the initial test results they received, administrators and teachers at the school were concerned they may not be able to turn things around. At the beginning of last school year, only about 32 percent of students knew the basics typically needed to be successful in kindergarten.
"We were really worried last year … when most of our kids didn't have a clue," she said.
By the end of the year, however, well over 80 percent had mastered the kindergarten reading concepts and were ready for first grade.
"It was a huge difference," she said.
The district intends to expand the professional development to first grade teachers this school year and has plans for community outreach that will help parents prepare their children for school.
While an 86 percent success rate is admirable, Lanward said the district has set a target of 100 percent of kindergartners testing proficiently in reading, and she hopes to get markedly closer by the end of this year.
"Early intervention and really focusing on kids as soon as possible is our biggest chance … in closing the achievement gap," Lanward said.
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