In his book “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!” Dr. Seuss wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Or as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire framed it: both reading and writing the word and reading and writing the world. Reading is the gateway to success in school and in life. Yet in San Francisco as well as communities across America we’ve failed to help every learner, particularly disenfranchised youth, acquire the reading skills they need to excel.
When San Francisco Unified School District under the leadership of Superintendent Richard Carranza and the SFUSD School Board embarked on Vision 2025, a community-wide initiative to ensure that we prepare our graduates to live, thrive and succeed in our city and beyond, one of our first steps was a blended, multi-generational early literacy project. It’s an ambitious effort that’s delivering promising results just one year into it.
Addressing longstanding disparities and inequities in the educational system was as important to our district and the community as making classrooms more vibrant, engaging centers of learning through Vision 2025. Based on previous success turning around formerly “persistently lowest performing schools,” we found that among the most effective strategies was providing students with greater access to books at all reading levels and building professional capacity for implementing a research-based comprehensive literacy framework. Building on that foundation, the Making Literacy Connections: School and Family Early and Digital Literacy Project brings together technology, learning resources, training and support for both students and families at low-performing schools to move students toward grade-level reading proficiency and a clear pathway to graduation.
Project in motion
To ensure a sustainable and replicable model, the new program was rolled out in carefully chosen underserved elementary schools in our district. In consultation with ELA teachers and district ELA leaders, we determined that the program might best benefit first graders, a year in which great leaps in reading are required, to move them along the continuum to grade-level reading proficiency before they reached the critical turning point in third grade.
As part of the program, each first grade classroom is provided with a set of iPad minis and access to thousands of age-appropriate digital books through an online personalized literacy environment that provides access to thousands of books and scaffolded reading supports. Each family that participates also receives an iPad that they earn by becoming strong literacy partners and completing training to learn how to use them to engage their children in effective literacy activities as well as to connect with their child’s teacher. Families can keep the devices indefinitely. Every device is loaded with reading and writing software, ensuring that students and parents alike have access to tools needed to succeed.
Community-wide training and support
Critical to the success of the program is engaging low-income families to extend literacy efforts beyond the school walls. Through partnerships with community-based organizations including several YMCA’s and the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) we provided training for parents to support them in being actively involved in their child’s education. The family curriculum was developed jointly with the school district and a nonprofit partner, Wexford Institute. The goal is to help families, many of which are non-native English speakers, learn to read and to accelerate literacy learning in schools through extended reading engagement at home and in the community.
To receive the family iPads, parents or guardians completed a 20 module, 10-session course with lessons on everything from how to use the iPads and specific apps, to Internet safety and digital literacy, to early literacy activities they can do with their child on or off the device, and to ways to access online and off-line resources for family economic success. The training was offered in multiple languages. The sessions also provided a venue for parents to network with each other, with teachers and with other district staff.
Within the district, we provided our staff with complementary training on effectively integrating the iPads and digital literacy resources into their classrooms. This training was an extension of the evidence and research-based comprehensive literacy framework workshop model, Reader’s and Writer’s Workshops, that are already transforming classrooms in SFUSD. The model incorporates robust leveled classroom libraries, organized into learning centers, with opportunities for dynamic individual, small and full group work, through guided, shared, and independent literacy learning.
Funding from Startup: Education, the foundation of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, enabled us to implement and evaluate the innovative pilot project and focus public funds on other proven critical district programs already in place or underway. The insights gained from the program made possible by this private investment will inform strategic future use of public funds for evidence-based strategies.
Recent research affirms that reading engagement is the key to long-term achievement. Engaged readers read frequently for enjoyment and learning, just as Dr. Seuss had discovered, building a strong foundation for early literacy development and reading to learn.
Learners become more motivated to read when they are provided with the opportunity to choose books that match their interest areas and abilities. The days of the same recommended book lists prescribed for every student may no longer be the only or best way to learn.
The new digital technologies implemented through Making Literacy Connections support our educators in efficiently and effectively personalizing reading for every student in every participating classroom, with access to a much wider library of offerings. At school and at home, students can access online libraries with thousands of texts and scaffolded supports that address individual preferences and proficiency levels. As they become stronger readers, they are guided to more challenging content. When students are motivated to read and experience success, they become more avid readers who can develop better reading, writing and comprehension skills across the school curriculum.
Kevin Rocap is the Executive Director of Strategy & Development in the office of the superintendent around San Francisco Unified School District’s Vision 2025 strategic plan. The district is using a personalized literacy environment from myON. Rocap can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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