Shared Literacy Community Values: Step into ESL LitCamp

Kenneth Kunz, Ed.D. is currently K–12 Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction at Middlesex Public Schools. This post is also co-authored by Kathyrn Diskin and Elizabeth Tamargo. 

Embracing All Literacy Learners

Middlesex School District, located in a small New Jersey metropolitan suburb, is home to a diverse student population of approximately 2,000 students. This past summer our Middlesex administrative team’s goal was centered on encouraging the English learner population to read for fun, while promoting access and equity by putting more books in the hands of our students. As Richard Allington notes in his research, summer and extensive breaks from formal school instruction contribute to significant losses in gains related to students’ reading.

Community Involvement

Our quest for resources began with a desire to uplift an already successful #READ4Fun program to broader heights with a new literacy vision.  A special feature of the Middlesex School District is a community-wide desire to get involved to make an impact. 

During the summer of 2017, students who were enrolled in Spanish foreign language classes at Middlesex High School volunteered their time to participate in “Hablo Ingles,” a program aimed at building the confidence of young English learners at the elementary level through community-building and speaking and listening activities.  New this year, we focused on students’ literacy development by implementing LitCamp. The 4-week summer literacy program took on a life of its own with the involvement of motivated high school volunteers who helped build English learners’ confidence and excitement for reading.

When LitCamp first began for ESL students, materials were organized by grade level and high school volunteers participated in an after-school training to become acquainted with how to organize each 90-minute day. While materials and resources helped get the program started, it was the love for teaching and learning that made all the difference. Volunteers went above and beyond to design warm and inviting learning environments, create team building activities, and celebrate students’ learning, earning countless hugs from kids.

Teacher Leadership

Another key component of the program involved promoting teacher leadership by creating the position of ESL LitCamp Coordinator funded through federal title grants.  In this role, Mrs. Tamargo helped to organize and supervise the volunteers, check in daily to ensure that things were running smoothly, and collect and analyze data.

Outcomes and Next Steps

After reflecting on artifacts, survey results, and anecdotal records, our team found that the average student enjoyed anywhere from 14–20 books over the course of four weeks and students’ attitudes towards reading showed positive growth. On the first day of LitCamp, as she welcomed students into the classroom, Mrs. Tamargo noted in her daily journal, “Both the counselors and kids seem nervous today.  Everyone is becoming familiar with the routines and structure and where to go.  Student A is dropped off early and picked up late.  He speaks very little English and appears shy.”

On the last day of camp, her entry read: “The counselors really went all-out for the students, bringing in macaroni and cheese and preparing summer gift bags.  The halls are filled with the sounds of kids playing games and singing songs.  Student A was able to spend the entire day with his group.  When it came time to dismiss, we had lots of kids crying when their parents translated in English that this was the last day of camp.  Student A gave the best hug before he left.  There were lots of smiles when students realized they could take all of the books home with them.

To further spread excitement about literacy across the community, Pam Allyn, author and Founder of the nonprofit LitWorld, visited as a keynote speaker during the district’s back-to-school kickoff day.  Everyone in the school community was present (including teachers, administrators, lunch aides, administrative assistants, custodians, maintenance workers, and many more). We couldn’t agree more with her beliefs that all students have great potential to become Super Readers, and we all play a crucial role in this mission! 

Of course, we also believe that this excitement for literacy should last throughout the year.  During the summer, students wrote post-cards to their principals, proudly announcing how many books they read and what they enjoyed most of all.  Principals made their rounds throughout the schools during the first week of school to locate and celebrate each student individually—the students were beaming with joy!  Continued encouragement from teachers and schools leaders combined with individualized conferring in our language arts classrooms will keep the momentum going.

 

References

Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap, Allington (2013).

As Students Head Back to School, Districts Nationwide Shine a Spotlight on Literacy and More

Below are a few education stories we've bookmarked recently.

While many look to January as a time to analyze goals and start fresh, the beginning of a new school year is also a moment to evaluate and emphasize what will be important in the coming months. As students head back to school this year, districts nationwide are shining a spotlight on literacy and building the family, community, and learning supports that students need to succeed in their continued learning journeys. We’ve bookmarked a few local examples of districts that are highlighting literacy, learning supports, and social-emotional intelligence as a focus.

Middlesex teachers focus on increasing student literacy ahead of school year

Middlesex School District in New Jersey hosted a back-to-school kickoff event for all district staff where literacy expert Pam Allyn provided a keynote presentation about the power of reading with tips for helping all kids become “Super Readers.”

Northside ISD creates free clothing closet for students in need

Before students head back to school at Northside ISD in Texas, they will have a chance to shop for new clothes thanks to Northside Threads, a free collection of clothing for students who need new outfits, but aren't able to afford them. Students will arrive for the first day of school feeling more confident and able to focus on classroom work, knowing they have an outfit for every day of the school week.

Grand Rapids schools dedicating 2 hours daily to literacy

Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan began a literacy initiative encouraging kindergarten through second grade classrooms to dedicate two-hour blocks of time each day to literacy instruction to improve proficiency in English language arts.

State's Superintendents Schooled On Emotional Intelligence At Annual Back-To-School Meeting

During their annual back-to-school meeting, Connecticut superintendents received a crucial lesson in emotional intelligence from Marc Brackett, director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence. Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association for Public School Superintendents, explained, “It begins with the adults ... to honor their feelings, who they are as a whole individual. That was the key, then moving to the child. It cut down bullying, it cut down suspensions, increased attendance.”

Twitter Chat Recap: #G2Great with Tim Rasinski & Melissa Cheesman Smith

Last night, fluency expert Tim Rasinski and veteran fifth grade teacher Melissa Cheesman Smith joined the Literacy Lenses #G2Great Twitter chat to talk about their new book and strategies to engage all young readers. The two shared their thoughts on using authentic texts, tactics to promote authentic fluency experiences, the benefits of Multidimensional Fluency Scales, and more.

To learn more about how to weave fluency work into daily reading instruction, check out the professional title The Megabook of Fluency! You can view the full #G2Great Twitter chat hosted by Dr. Mary Howard, here.

Below are highlights from the Twitter chat:

Literacy is Not a Trend: Creating a Culture of Literacy

Dr. Sue Szachowicz—former school principal and Senior Fellow for the Successful Practices Network—will be speaking at the Principals of Literacy Institute (Nashville, TN / September 20-22, 2018) brought to you by Scholastic and National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Register here.

The power of teaching students literacy skills is well documented in educational research.  But what does that look like in districts, schools, and classrooms, and more importantly, how do you create a culture of literacy that is pervasive and long lasting?

In my many years at Brockton High School, we transformed from a school ranked as one of the lowest performing in Massachusetts to a National Model School, recognized for academic excellence.  We accomplished this by focusing relentlessly on literacy.  Led by our leadership team, we implemented a Literacy Initiative across the curriculum that focused on teaching the students the skills they need in reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning, in every classroom.  But that first required us to teach those literacy strategies to our faculty—in EVERY discipline. 

There was no magic formula, no silver bullet, no special program.  Rather, our “secret sauce” was simple, but not easy.  Our four steps to creating this powerful culture of literacy have become a template for many leadership teams to follow.  Let’s look at each of those steps toward creating a culture of literacy.

1.  Empower a team

Our leadership team, which included faculty and administration, examined the data and we asked ourselves what skills our students need to be successful on our state assessment, in their classes, and in their lives beyond school.  From that discussion, we determined that our students needed to read challenging selections (particularly nonfiction), write clearly, speak professionally, and think critically.  That led us to literacy.

2.  Focus on literacy

Our leadership team defined literacy in four domains:  reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning (see an outline of the Literacy Initiative, below).  Within each domain, we detailed very specific literacy objectives that teachers would teach to their students—every teacher, in every discipline.  But first, we had to teach these skills to ourselves.  Many educators may feel as I did when I was teaching history.  I was not opposed to teaching reading or writing, but frankly, I didn’t have the strategies.  When I would present my students with difficult primary source readings, they often said, “Miss, I don’t get it.”  Then I’d utilize the only reading strategies I had in my toolbox telling them, “Read it again.”  And if they still weren’t getting it, I’d go to a deeper level, “Read it more slowly.”  Hardly effective literacy strategies.   Our challenge was adult learning.  We needed to ensure that all of our teachers had literacy strategies in their toolboxes.

3.  Implement with fidelity

Once the literacy objectives in reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning were established, teachers received training in how to teach and integrate those skills in their classes.  Faculty meetings became literacy workshops, created and led by our leadership team.  This was teachers teaching teachers.  We modeled for the faculty the writing process that they would teach to the students—highly effective professional development.  All teachers were taught how to teach active reading strategies and a writing process that would be implemented across the curriculum.  A calendar was established to ensure that students were given repeated practice in these critical literacy skills. 

4.  Monitor like crazy

This became our greatest challenge—how to ensure that this practice was happening with fidelity and rigor across the school.  We monitored the faculty implementation by direct observation of the literacy instruction, and by utilizing a common rubric.  We followed up by having teachers review, compare and discuss student work.  By grouping teachers in common grades and subjects to review students’ writing, we began to increase the consistency of rigor for all of our students.  

Within a year we saw results, and that’s what got the buy-in from our faculty—results!  As we started to receive awards and attention for our continued improvement year after year, we have shared our process with schools and districts across the country with great results.  In fact, just recently I received this email from Blythe Carpenter, principal of Merriam Cherry Street Elementary in Panama City Florida: “I am writing to share the good news that our school pulled it off, we found out yesterday that we made the 'A'!!! We went from one of the lowest performing 300 schools in the state of Florida with an 'F' grade, to a high performing 'A' school in just TWO years!!!  We did it with a focus on literacy, particularly in reading…”

Creating a culture of literacy works!  Literacy is not a trend, it will not get outdated, it can be replicated, and it does not cost a fortune.  Most importantly, creating a culture of literacy provides our students with the skills they need to be successful not only in school, but in their lives beyond school.  Simple, not easy.

The Critical Role of Phonemic Awareness in Reading Instruction

Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of a student’s ability to read fluently. This ability to hear speech sounds clearly, and to differentiate them, is what allows us to acquire language easily, and this knowledge of language is key to our understanding of what we read. As cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Paula Tallal explains, “To break the code for reading, a child must become ‘phonologically aware’ that words can be broken down into smaller units of sounds (phonemes) and that it is these sounds that the letters represent.”

A National Reading Panel in-depth review of 52 phonemic awareness articles found that explicitly teaching phonemic awareness has a direct and significant impact on children’s reading, significantly more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness. However, this foundational skill is rarely taught systematically.

It wasn’t until after I learned my son was born profoundly deaf, and I made the shift to the field of speech and language, that I saw the evidence for myself that reading difficulties were directly correlated to the inability to differentiate sounds. Through my years of research and teaching hearing-impaired students to read, I learned not only that children need direct, strongly auditory-based instruction in each of the 44 sounds of the English language, but that the order in which sounds are presented to children directly affects how well and quickly they are able to secure their sound system.

I discovered it was critical to begin phonemic awareness instruction with the sounds which are easiest to hear and blend (/m/, /s/, /oo/, /sh/, /ee/, /aw/). These sounds can be lengthened or held, and don’t have any other sound attached to them which allows a student to get a good grasp of the sound before blending it with another. As students gain proficiency with these easier sounds, they’re ready to learn the rest of the 44 sounds, those that are more difficult, such as /d/, /i/, /k/ etc. These sounds are harder to hear in syllables, and they can’t be lengthened or have another sound attached to them when spoken in isolation. This is the path provided to students in grades PreK–2 in the digital foundational reading program I authored, Ooka Island.

Phonemic awareness teaches students to both hear and manipulate sounds, and to understand that spoken words are made up of sequences of speech sounds. Through my research, I learned that students who were able to identify phonemes rapidly were able to read more fluently because of this rapid processing. Those students who took longer to process phonemes struggled with comprehension. It appeared that too much attention was required to decode the words, leaving less for interpreting what was read.

Fluent reading relies on students developing their phonemic awareness to the point of automaticity, freeing up their brain energy to easily comprehend what they’re reading. Without securing their sound system by learning to automatically recall the 44 sounds of the English language, students rely on inefficient decoding methods and coping strategies like memorization. These skills may enable them to begin to read but as texts increase in complexity, students’ comprehension begins to break down, as it becomes too challenging to understand what they are reading when they are focused on laboriously decoding every word. If we want students to gain mastery of the 44 sounds, they need to have repeated auditory exposure to each of the individual sounds and learn how to rapidly recognize each sound amongst other sounds.

References

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Reports of the Subgroups. Author. 2.1-2.8

Tallal, P. (2012). Improving neural response to sound improves reading. PNAS. vol. 109, no. 41, 16406–16407

Inquiry in the Classroom: Never Lose Your Sense of Wonder!

Sherry Kinzel is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

There’s nothing like a summer camping trip in the cathedral of the great outdoors that brings on a flood of questions about the world.  When my three boys were little, they had a million questions every time we went camping:  What makes fire burn?  Where do the fish sleep at night?  Can you make it stop raining?  It was like a switch had been flipped, and they became seekers of ALL knowledge.  They were in a natural state of curiosity and in a rich environment. What a combination!  The more they discovered, the more seeking they did.  This inquisitive process was a sight to behold (and, as every parent knows, it was a bit exhausting trying to field all those questions—some of which I had no clue how to answer; so we agreed to ask a park ranger or find another resource to help answer their wonderings when we got home).  Those memories led me to wondering “why aren’t our classrooms more like that?” and “what can be done to generate more authentic inquiry experiences for students?”

Why aren’t more classrooms inquiry-based?

Perhaps part of the answer to that question has to do with how teachers view their role in the classroom.  The public educational system for the United States began during the Industrial Revolution, so at that time we were preparing our youth to enter a workforce that would lead them to working in factories that were mass-producing products.  Input in…output out.  Little to no inquiry or creativity required.  Is it possible that that process was translated into the field of education?  Teacher delivers content.  Students commit content to rote memory and recall content when prompted to do so.  Could this be the reason so many of us as students sat passively through lecture-style teaching year after year during our own education?  Do teachers today still view themselves as keepers of the knowledge

I don’t think teachers do that on purpose.  However, I think we often unintentionally send that message to our students.  How?  Teachers are predominately the ones asking the questions or telling students what questions need to be answered.  According to Dictionary.com, inquiry is “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.”  Our classrooms need to be spaces where children and teachers are seekers of truth, information, and knowledge.  They should be places where everyone’s thinking and curiosity are valued, and it is okay for teachers to ask questions that they don’t know the answer to.  Consider posing this authentic question:  What does inquiry look and sound like in my school?  Have each teacher reflect on their own classroom experiences and then build a conversation with each other.

What can be done to generate more authentic inquiry experiences for students?

Bottom line…we do what we value.  Therefore, inquiry has to be valued.  I don’t know a teacher worth her salt that intentionally tries to make her students dependent on her for learning.  Inquiry has to be viewed as authentic learning.  It has to be understood as a way of helping students become independent in their thinking and their pursuit of knowledge and understanding.  Remember, we are preparing children for their future, not our past.  Valuing inquiry means we are supporting their ability to become problem-solvers right now and in the future.

How do we do that?  By modeling, of course! This means teachers have to pose questions they don’t know the answers to during an interactive read-aloud, science experiment, or shared reading of a historical document.  Teachers need to get comfortable with sharing what they are wondering about aloud with students. It might sound like, “That makes me wonder about…”  Then pause to give others time to respond. They also need to develop the habit of “honoring” the thinking of others by saying things such as, “Oh my gosh!  I’ve never thought about it like that! Gavin, thank you for sharing your thinking.  Do you see how Gavin’s thinking pushed our thinking deeper?”

This might mean that instead of saying, “Tomorrow we are going to begin a unit on weather,” we say “What are some things you’ve always wondered about weather? For example, why do weather forecasters say there’s a slight chance of rain and then it rains all day? Let’s make a list of our wonderings.”   Students will follow our lead to wonder about the world when they feel safe to share their thinking and feel the reward of discovery. 

4 Easy Ways to Enliven and Inspire the Pleasure and Purpose of Summer Reading

I love my reading life over the summer. It's wandering, surprising, whimsical and free. I give myself permission not to have to give myself permission. I read everything from old cookbook recipes to funny celebrity news to binging through a new mystery writer. Yet when I see summer reading lists from schools, my heart sinks. With all we know about reading instruction and what it takes to raise super readers, we have not done the work needed to help our students read for 365 days a year in ways that will truly inspire them.

We have boiled our summer reading advice to our students down to lists that represent what we think they "should" read over the summer. The books tend to be award winners: noble, beautiful books that teach lessons and connect to a social studies curriculum. All safe choices that might be good in certain contexts, but they do not live into the spirit of what we genuinely do as readers with the pleasure of those summer months before us. When we—as lifelong readers—make choices, they are hardly ever the "safe" ones. We go outside the boxes again and again. I want that for our children and young adults, too.

Here's how:
Let's encourage and inspire our students to do this:

1. Read your favorite books again. Rereading is absolutely the most powerful tool that will help readers develop greater stamina, deeper concentration, and abundant joy. My memories of rereading The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte's Web, Walk Two Moons, any poem by Langston Hughes, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bean Trees— these books meant something different to me at different times of my life and I continue to read and reread them, finding not only their magic and power as they were and are, but also the sense of my own self in its ever-changing, ever-growing journey.

2. Read books (and everything) that make reading feel easy. We spend so much time all year telling our students that reading feels hard, and explaining how they can push through the hard parts. At a certain point, no one, and I mean no one, wants to do something that always feels hard. It's just not possible. As humans, we gravitate to the things that bring us joy and make us feel so good. The same is true about reading. I love reading celebrity magazines. I love reading mysteries. I love reading romantic novels that always work out. So what?! Does that make me less of a reader? No! It makes me a confident, bold, purposeful, happy reader. Let's make the summer about reading that feels good.

3. Read at different times of the day and in a variety of places. We think of and talk to our students about reading as if it's something that generally happens right before bedtime. But, really, that is so limiting! Not every reading experience happens then. I, for example, love watching a Netflix show right before bed. I prefer reading in the early morning and throughout the day. I tell my students this. Encourage them to find ways to tuck reading into other routines, as they travel, sitting on a porch stoop at sunset, as a late afternoon ritual.

4. Put it down. Invite and encourage your students to abandon anything they aren't into. We do that as adults, why do we not tell our kids we do it?! If I don't like a book I'm reading in the summer, I stop reading it! There are thousands more books for me to choose from. I don't have time to waste. And pushing through a book that is boring me to death is not really a good use of my time. Empower your students to have ownership over their decisions and not to feel guilty or less than a reader because they abandon a book. I have a stack of books in my phone and on my nightstand; my guess is I'll enjoy about one out of four of them and those are the ones I'll finish. And I am a super reader!

Let the summer be about choice, agency and identity building for every single one of your students. In this way, one hundred percent of them can truly become lifelong super readers.

Word Study: Assessment-Driven Instruction

Carla Steele is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

Why do they get it on Friday and misspell it on Monday?

This is a question raised by parents, pondered by educators, and researched by literacy experts alike. It is a question that challenges us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of not only phonics and spelling, but of the various ideologies and pedagogical practices that factor into this phenomenon as well.

It means that we have to take a hard look at the teaching and learning happening—or not happening—in our classrooms. Are we are motivating students to be active and engaged participants, and have ownership in their learning? Is our instruction systematic and intentional? Are we affording students the opportunity to transfer what they learn into authentic reading and writing experiences?

If not, consider a shift to a developmental, systematic, and assessment-driven Word Study approach, which focuses on teaching for transference and is both a component of and immersed within a comprehensive, balanced literacy model—one that may look very different than the traditional instruction many of us received. 

What Do I Need to Know?

There is not just one way to “do” Word Study, and navigating the possibilities can be overwhelming. However, there is one essential resource: the teacher. No one understands students’ needs better.

The following is not a “how-to” guide to Word Study. It is a brief overview of key factors to consider when developing, selecting, or refining an existing Word Study model.

What is Word Study?

Word Study is first and foremost developmental. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Students are active participants; have ownership in their journey to become successful, independent word-solvers as readers and writers; and is a key part of literacy instruction for all grades.

It is also: 

  • research- and inquiry-based
  • student-centered
  • active
  • generative
  • socially constructed
  • differentiated
  • engaging
  • process-driven
  • assessment-driven
  • responsive to students' strengths and needs
  • intentionally linked to authentic reading and writing

Assessment-Driven Instruction

Spelling inventories are useful in discerning a child’s stage of spelling development, offering insight into the level of word knowledge the student controls. While the stages of spelling development are established, the rate of progress in and through each stage can vary significantly between children. Assessment informs decision-making that supports differentiated instruction and ensures that instruction is appropriate.

A multifaceted assessment plan should include daily and periodic assessments to provide data and information important for both instructional decision-making and progress monitoring.  Other assessments, especially useful in interim progress monitoring include: classroom observations, running records/records of oral reading, and writing samples.

When taken together, the data from a combination of assessments make it possible to determine students’ progress in developing item knowledge as well as their use of word knowledge/word solving strategies in reading and writing continuous text.  A Word Study approach relies on this type of sensitive, systematic, and intentional assessment.

Organizing for and Managing Word Study

Whole Group or Small Group Instruction: If one is not yet comfortable in facilitating small group Word Study, it may be better to begin with the whole group. However, the ultimate goal is to transition to small group, differentiated instruction to better meet the students’ diverse needs.

  • Whole Group Instruction: The Word Study cycle begins with a teacher-led, whole group mini-lesson. On subsequent days, students engage in application activities designed to strengthen and expand their learning with each day ending in a group share. 
  • Differentiated Small Group Instruction: The first step is to group students who have similar strengths and needs for instruction based on assessment data. A staggered start is used to begin each group’s study cycle. It is important that groups remain fluid and flexible so that movement is possible between groups as students grow in their understandings and new learning needs arise.

Planning for Instruction: Begin by analyzing data from a spelling inventory used to determine students’ stage of spelling or word knowledge. When coupled with additional classroom data and information, a starting point for instruction can be determined. It is important not to focus only on what the student does not know. Look instead for what the student controls or is beginning to control.

Word Study in the Classroom: Classroom curriculum must provide time for explicit Word Study as well as time for embedded opportunities—across instructional contexts—in order for students to practice, extend, and deepen their understandings of how words work as they read and write continuous texts. It is not one or the other, it must be both. A comprehensive, balanced literacy framework makes this complex task achievable.

Teaching and Learning 

Word Study is based on theoretical underpinnings that assert a child’s acquisition of word knowledge is a systematic, developmental process that grows and changes over time, at different rates for different children. Therefore, the teaching and learning that takes place within in our classrooms must go far beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.

Quality Word Study can do just that by affording students a myriad of opportunities to discover, extend, practice, and build understandings about how words work across instructional contexts and within a systematic, organized block of time.

It can also ignite the wow factor in students when they are encouraged to inquire and search for understanding; employ critical thinking/problem solving strategies; and become active participants in their own learning as they journey to become proficient readers, writers, and language learners.

Learn More:

The Joy of Writing: Living as Writers Within the Workshop by Wendy Sheets, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Let’s Rethink Second Grade: My Teaching and Coaching Experience with this Transitional Year by Shelly Schaub, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

The Writer's Journey by Jenny McFerin, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.

How Superintendents Can Help Reduce Chronic Absence

Hedy Chang is the Executive Director of Attendance Works, whose mission is to advance student success and reduce equity gaps by reducing chronic absence. She joins EDU to encourage district superintendents to sign the Superintendents Call to Action.

This fall, Attendance Works and nine national organizations are reaching out to District Superintendents and inviting them to prioritize an increasingly urgent issue: chronic absenteeism.

While many people understand the critical connection between school attendance and achievement, far too many don’t realize how quickly a child’s absences from school adds up. Surveys suggest that families want their children to succeed and recognize that regular attendance is important. But few realize how missing just a few days each month can interfere with learning and  throw a child off track academically.

Chronic absenteeism occurs when, within the academic year, a child misses 10% or more of school – as little as two days per month. Research shows that starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, students who are chronically absent struggle to read by the end of 3rd grade. By middle school, they are more likely to drop out of high school.

At least 8 million students, or more than 15% of students nationwide, are chronically absent, according to the most recent  data from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2015-16 school year.

Why do so many students miss school? The reasons are varied, and include unaddressed chronic health issues, unreliable transportation, bullying or feeling alienated by an unwelcoming school climate, or problematic school discipline practices.

Working together with community partners, district-level Superintendents can help motivate students and families to avoid unnecessary absences and overcome challenging barriers to getting to school.

This year, with the Superintendents Call to Action we are asking local Superintendents to:

  • Prioritize Attendance, by making it clear that that reducing chronic absence is a top priority, and asking their principals, teachers and school board members to make it one of theirs, as well.
  • Mobilize the Community, by involving key stakeholders in positive problem solving rather than punitive action and blame, which are not proven to be effective. Superintendents can call for engaging families through positive messaging and offering supports as soon as absences start to add up to too much lost instructional time.
  • Drive Action with Data, by using local chronic absence data to monitor and address chronic absence as soon as it becomes a problem. Local Superintendents can analyze data – by grade, school and sub-population— to find out and publicize where resources are needed the most and to set shared targets for improvement.

While everyone can help ensure students show up to class every day, the leadership role that a Superintendent plays is irreplaceable. District Superintendents are uniquely positioned to tap civic and elected leaders, businesses and libraries, health providers, housing authorities, volunteers and other partners to help develop and implement a shared plan of action that reflects local resources  and challenges.

If you’re a Superintendent, sign the Call to Action! Last year, 620 leaders  from districts large and small—located in 41 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Island—signed the Call.

Sign the Call to Action on the Superintendents page on our website.

To learn more about why reducing chronic absence is so critical, read Attendance: The New Equity Frontier, an interview with Hedy Chang.

Why Not? How to Build Innovative Community Partnerships

Dr. Jacqueline L. Sanderlin (“Dr. J”)—Executive Director of School and Community Relations, Inglewood Unified School District—will be speaking at the Principals of Literacy Institute (Nashville, TN / September 20-22, 2018) brought to you by Scholastic and National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Register here.

In my work building partnerships for the Inglewood Unified School District in Inglewood, CA, I have worked with members of our community to create beautiful projects and inspiring experiences for the children in our schools.

It is absolutely true that this work takes a lot of hustle and creative thinking. But there is one thing I always remind people: partnerships are relationships. Every conversation I have begins with this idea in mind. I never ask, “What can you do for us?” I ask, “What can we do together?” From there, we’re able to dream big together.

Below are a few ideas to get you started in building and cultivating community relationships for your schools.  

Branding your school identity

School choice is real and the competition is stiff! How is your school standing out as a viable choice? There is a way to make your school speak when you give it voice, personality, and life. There are specific strategies that can help you learn how to make your school a landmark in your community and one that the community knows about. When they know your school, the voices multiply!

Supporting academic pathways with partners

Having a pathway is an excellent way to inspire community partners to bring access and opportunity for students. Partners need a pathway to connect to and reside in. Their ability to make your pathway come alive with job shadowing, internships, scholarships, and certifications is a possibility that will create a pipeline into the world of college and career. With a solid plan, you can bring partners into your vision for years.

Making it rain green

This is the best color rain you can have and you don’t need an umbrella! How do you make it rain green? Become a cause and draw partners who will see your school as a financial investment – not charity. Community partners are always looking for a cause because they not only want to – they have to. Come and hear why and how you can leverage this opportunity the next day.

Learn more about and register for the Principals of Literacy Institute here.

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