Lawrence educators join training on new ways to teach students reading

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As part of a statewide program, many teachers in the Lawrence school district are choosing to take training on innovative ways to teach children how to read proficiently.

Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment department staff members updated the school board on Monday on the district’s structured literacy work, which speaks to researched ways to teach students how to read. Intricacies in this teaching style include the sound structure of language, letter names, letter formation, symbol types and more, Director of Elementary Curriculum Denise Johnson said Monday. 

The Kansas Legislature in 2022 passed the Every Child Can Read Act, and it went into effect this year. The law mandates school boards to take action toward grade-level proficiency in literacy, especially by the time they’re in third grade.

Teachers in the district are volunteering to join 90-minute training sessions over six Wednesdays, Johnson said. The partly-state-funded program, called LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), is designed to teach teachers best practices for helping students with their literacy skills.

This fall, every teacher at Sunset Hill Elementary School enrolled in LETRS, principal Jeremy Philipp said. He said staff members have reported positive feedback from the training.

“LETRS is not a curriculum; it’s a way that literacy is taught,” Philipp said. “It’s not like a new workbook. It’s investing in how teachers teach. It’s investing in how teachers talk with one another.”

January 2024 is the deadline for teachers to be able to sign up for the program. Johnson said the state is paying $1,500 per teacher for a two-year training, and the district is paying in total $3,900 per teacher.

Board President Kelly Jones said the board has been invited to see LETRS training in action and that she’s looking forward to that opportunity.

Board Vice President Bob Byers asked staff how “schools like New York and Woodlawn elementary schools” are doing with LETRS. He said at New York, where he serves as a site council member, teachers have expressed that with large class sizes and not enough staff, they aren’t able to keep up with student needs.

Johnson said more teachers have joined on board after hearing testimonies from colleagues who volunteered to do the training.

“That’s how we’re bringing people on is they’re hearing the good information and the good training,” Johnson said. “So we do not have it 100% in every building, but that would of course be our goal.”

The district’s goal is to improve reading scores so that 75% of students in kindergarten through 10th grade will score as “low-risk or on-track” — the top scoring category — on the spring 2024 FastBridge aReading or earlyReading assessment. FastBridge is an assessment tool to track and measure student learning. 

Jana Craig-Hare, director of data and assessment, speaks to the Lawrence school board on Nov. 27, 2023. Behind her are district staff members, including Patrick Kelly, at left, Jeremy Philipp, Kendra Luna and Denise Johnson. (Screenshot / USD 497 YouTube)

On the fall assessment, 62.6% of students in kindergarten through 10th grade scored in the low-risk or on-track category of the assessment, according to district data

Board member Erica Hill pointed out the persistent trend of students of color scoring the lowest on assessments the most. African American students as well as American Indian or Alaska Native students were the two racial subgroups with the least percentage of students scoring in the low-risk or on-track category in both reading and math assessments this fall, according to the data.

Hill asked how the district plans to reach its 75% goal when there’s a larger gap for students of color to get there. Johnson said each school has begun digging into their individual data, which is a “powerful piece” in identifying student needs.

Recently, the district began a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County to recruit community members for their “One Initiative.” The initiative pairs adult mentors with students in the district so that they can read together at school, and volunteers are still needed. Teachers can tell mentors about content their students may be struggling with.

Johnson also updated the board Monday on state dyslexia requirements, which she said the district has continued to follow. The requirements include six hours of training for teachers as well as dyslexia screenings using FastBridge for all students.

The same as its reading goals, the district is aiming for 75% of students in kindergarten through second grade to score as low-risk or on-track on the Spring FastBridge aMath or earlyMath assessment.

The district also hopes the number of students in third through eighth grades in addition to students taking entry-level high school math courses scoring at levels 3 and 4 on the KAP Math Assessment will increase by 10% every school year.

School board members did not need to take any action on the report.

View Monday’s presentation on the board’s meeting agenda via go.boarddocs.com.

New STEM courses added

Additionally, the school board on Monday approved additional STEM courses at the high school level in hopes to provide more options of interest to students.

Staff members recommended adding the following classes, all in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math:

Algebra 1 in Manufacturing Processes, Entrepreneurship and Design (AMPED)
Geometry in Construction
Integrated Algebra/Geometry 1
Integrated Algebra/Geometry 2
Production Methods
Project Lead the Way App Creators (MS)

School board members unanimously approved all course additions with a vote of 6-0. Board member Paula Vann was absent and did not vote Monday.

The department did not recommend deleting any classes as part of this year’s course updates. Teachers were hesitant to pull some introductory courses to replace with new classes because they could still offer them if students needed, Director of Secondary Curriculum Shaun Hanson said Monday.

Hanson said the board will discuss curriculum paths and post-secondary success at their Monday, Jan. 8 meeting on graduation requirements.

Consent agenda items

As part of the consent agenda — a list of items that are generally approved with one vote, unless a board member or the superintendent asks to discuss an item:

• Board members approved a pay increase for substitute teachers. 

In August, the board approved a daily sub pay increase to $115 from $105, and long-term sub daily pay to $140 from $130. “In order to remain competitive in substitute pay with surrounding districts and continue to fill certified absences,” new proposed rates would increase daily sub pay to $135 and long-term sub daily pay to $160, according to Monday’s meeting agenda

The cost increase for this school year will be paid with ESSER III (federal COVID-19 relief) funds, and it will be paid from operating funds for 2024-25 forward.

• The board approved the district’s purchase of wearable panic alert badge systems for six buildings, including Liberty Memorial Central and Billy Mills middle schools, and Deerfield, Cordley, Sunset Hill and Woodlawn elementary schools.

The cost of the project will be split 50/50 with a Safe Schools grant and the district’s operations safety and security capital outlay fund for a district expenditure of $142,200, according to Monday’s meeting agenda.

• Superintendent Anthony Lewis announced the promotions of two staff members to principal positions.

Quentin Rials and Zach Harwood are being promoted from interim principals to the permanent positions at Lawrence High School and Lawrence Virtual School, respectively. (Read more about them in this article.)

“Both of these school administrators continue to do an amazing job of building relationships with their scholars, their staff and their schools,” Lewis said Monday.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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