Four people sit at a table as one of them speaks into a microphone

KDE Director of Early Literacy Christie Biggerstaff (middle) discusses new literacy training programs during the Kentucky Board of Education meeting on April 12 along with (from left to right) KDE Assistant Director of Early Literacy Ashley Hill, Wayne County Schools Chief Academic Officer Brian Dishman and KDE Chief Academic Officer Micki Ray. Photo by Caleb Bates, April 12, 2023

The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) learned about efforts to overhaul literacy education — including statewide professional learning through Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) — during its two-day meeting that concluded April 12.

Members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Office of Teaching and Learning led KBE members through an exercise that illustrated how difficult literacy instruction is, removing words from a paragraph and asking members to decode the text based on a certain percentage of the words they understand.

If a student only understands a certain percentage of the text, they may struggle, just like many of the board members did.

“I feel frustrated, but I also feel inadequate that I don’t know the material like someone else, so that’s why then I’ve got to act out,” said KBE member Randy Poe.

The work on reforming literacy instruction in Kentucky focuses on improving language comprehension and word recognition.

The Office of Teaching and Learning also shared the results of a survey conducted through the Kentucky Reading Academies, which offers the LETRS training. It received 433 responses from the more than 1,800 teachers who have participated so far:

  • 95% say that they have learned new and relevant information; and
  • 93% say that the information they have learned has helped them better meet the diverse learning needs of their students.

Survey responses also included multiple written testimonials from participants about classroom assessment gains, student progress, the value of the information teachers are learning and the successful implementation in their classrooms.

The first phase of LETRS launched in August 2022, and applications for the next cohort of LETRS professional learning will open May 1.

KDE Director of Early Literacy Christie Biggerstaff said the need to address reading difficulties is particularly critical because the longer a student goes without any help, the longer it will take to catch them up as they progress through school.

“You cannot intervene your way out of a Tier 1 instruction problem,” she said.

KDE Chief Academic Officer Micki Ray said professional learning can accomplish a lot, but educators also need high-quality instructional resources to improve their literacy instruction.

“We believe that this is an investment,” she said. “It’s an investment in teachers, it’s an investment in students, and it is for their greater good in life and in a grade-level span. It’s good for their academic growth in that moment, at that time.”

Ray said the resources will help educators focus on foundational skills instruction and knowledge-based learning experiences, which foster deeper learning initiatives that enrich student experiences and align with KDE’s Portrait of a Learner, which outlines the skills a student should have when they graduate.

Ashley Hill, KDE’s assistant director of early literacy and the former chief academic officer for Corbin Independent Schools, shared her experiences with literacy reform in her former district.

“We’re not perfect, but our scores are increasing,” she said. “Our students are happier.”

Hill said the districts used Amplify CKLA, a high-quality Tier 1 instructional resource, to improve early literacy. The district also selected Specialized Program Individualizing Reading Excellence (SPIRE), an evidence-based intervention program, to help students.

She said because of the changes, some of the elementary school students are able to learn about complex topics like the Civil War and body systems.

Representatives of Wayne County Schools and Hancock County Schools also shared their experiences with high-quality instructional resources as they work to improve student literacy experiences and outcomes.

Wayne County Schools Chief Academic Officer Brian Dishman said district staff were alarmed about the status of early literacy a few years ago.

“We weren’t getting the students outcomes that we thought we should get when it came to reading,” said Dishman. “We were seeing a lot of our students reach middle school and they still struggled.”

But he said they’ve made great strides since they chose a Tier 1 instructional resource.

Hancock County Schools Assistant Superintendent Robin Poynter said their overhaul started first with training their teachers on proper Tier 1 instructional resources, and then implementing the literacy program through all of its schools.

“It’s been a systematic approach from a district perspective, but we had to start with our teachers,” she said. “And now they feel very comfortable in what they do.”

Henry County Expansion Plans

Also at the meeting, the board approved a plan from the Henry County Board of Education that would allow the district to move forward with expansion.

The district’s leadership wants to expand the district’s campus to an adjacent property, but it needed a waiver from the KBE because an oil pipeline currently runs through the property the district wants to acquire.

Representatives with KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations told the board the pipeline cannot be moved, but it does not pose any hazards regarding future use of the property and the district has plans to limit development around the pipeline.

“We have spent a good amount of time working with the district and appreciate their time in answering our questions about the two waivers,” said Robin Kinney, associate commissioner in KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations.

The second waiver allows the district to move plans for a new central office from a Priority 4 to a Priority 2 in its overall district facility plan.

The reason for the change is because under KRS 157.622(3), the district needs to move the project to a higher priority level to qualify for funds from the state’s School Facilities Construction Commission (SFCC). An SFCC offer of assistance from 2014 to help finance a new central office is set to expire on Jan. 8, 2024.

Henry County Public Schools Superintendent Jim Masters said the school has several other plans for the new property it plans to acquire, but a lack of funding could delay those projects. The central office is among the top priorities because the current building was built in 1902 and because of the condition that it is in, staff members cannot use the second floor or the basement.

“We’ve got to do something different,” said Masters.

Additional plans for expansion include a daycare for the children of teachers, new athletic fields and an agriculture garden.

KBE member JoAnn Adams, a resident of Henry County, said she is excited to see the projects move forward, especially the central office.

“While no one in this county loves historic buildings more than I do, I’m ready for you to move out of that one,” Adams said to Masters.

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