Stanly elementary, pre-K teachers set to begin LETRS training

Of the many hardships that have occurred within school systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most consequential has been the decline in reading proficiency among elementary students.

In 2019, the last time state exams were given before the pandemic, the composite pass rate for all Stanly County Schools students, defined as a level 3 or above, was 48 percent, almost 10 percentage points lower than the state average. Last year it fell to 37 percent.

The scores were even worse for certain demographic groups: Roughly 32 percent of Hispanic third graders and only 21 percent of Black third graders achieved a level 3 or higher last year.

In order to better help students learn to read, elementary and pre-K teachers across the district will soon participate in a new statewide program called LETRS, short for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which emphasizes the science of reading and why it’s important. The program provides teachers with the research, depth of knowledge and skills to make a significant improvement in the literacy and language development of every student.

“A lot of times in the past, we were guilty of looking for the what — what resource can we use, what can we pull from, what do we have that will help us — and this is the why and the how,” said Amy Rhyne, North Carolina’s director of early learning and former director of academic and behavior support with SCS. “This tells us the science as to how the brain learns to read and how if a child doesn’t respond, then what is a specific strategy to use…”

Beginning in January, Stanly County will be one of many school districts across the state that will be enrolled in the second cohort of LETRS training.

“LETRS is nothing more than a professional development session…that is teaching the science of reading and digging back into the smallest microbes of what reading is,” Lynn Plummer, director of elementary education, told the school board. “What do we have to have to read? What skills does it take? What are we missing out on so that we that we can make sure that we’re growing readers that continue to flourish as they get older.”

Teachers will complete eight units of study — each consisting of between six to eight sessions — over the course of two years, totaling between 140 to 160 hours of work. During this time, they will learn, among other things, how to teach students to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters and decoding how they combine to make words, also known as phonics.

Plummer told the board that he and 25 other teachers and curriculum coaches began training for LETRS last year and are set to finish in May.

“We have a taste of what our teachers are getting ready to do,” he said. “We’ve been there, we’ve done that and we’ve been a part of it along the way.”

Stanly County is already ahead of the curve compared to other school districts in cohort 2 since many educators, like Plummer, have already received the training and have the requisite knowledge to help others, Rhyne said.

Knowing that the training can be difficult, the district is working to put practices in place where teachers can complete training during staff meetings and during professional development sessions.

Beginning on Jan. 19, 2022, teachers will attend a meeting to give them an idea of what to expect. They will also take a pre-assessment to prepare for units 1-4, Plummer said. The training combines lessons done in a group with individual online classes, reading and putting the work into practice with students.

After each completed unit, teachers from each grade level will have time to meet face-to-face to share ideas and discuss how things are going. These group sessions will occur during professional development days, so no instructional time will be missed, Plummer said.

Having talked with educators from other districts that have already launched the program, Rhyne said the training can feel like a master’s level course because so much of the information focuses around topics likely unfamiliar to teachers, such as how the brain works. It’s information “that honestly as educators, we don’t always take time to learn,” she said.

Utilizing existing ESSER funds, the school system purchased materials from the vendor Benchmark Advance for the district’s K-5 reading curriculum, which will go hand-in-hand with what teachers will be learning through LETRS training.

“As they continue to go through the LETRS training and continue to implement this K-5 curriculum from Benchmark Advance, it’s a seamless meshing of the two,” said Dr. Amy Blake-Lewis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

As part of the K-5 curriculum, students will not have traditional textbooks, but instead will have magazines to go along with each unit of study. They will own the magazines and be able write in and highlight the material as much as they please.

With the current grade level proficiency for students currently around 50 percent, “this is one of those steps that we’re putting into place to make sure that we’re closing those learning gaps for our students and that we’re giving our students that equal footing and those high-quality resources and that high-quality instruction to make those gains the we need to for our students,” Blake-Lewis said.

Even with the LETRS training, teachers will still be able to incorporate their own teaching styles into the curriculum.

“We have smart teachers, they know their kids and they know what they need,” Plummer said. “Roll your own things into it, but this gives you a foundation to start with. Start with this and then go beyond.”

Many of the board members were excited after hearing about the new reading program, with several of them mentioning they still had the phonics books given to them when they first learned to read.

“I am glad that this program, to me, focuses on we are going to get our children reading from the start and those that we need to work on a little harder, here it is with this program,” Chairwoman Glenda Gibson said.

She added that while the teachers will be busy with the training, “I hope our teachers know that we support then wholly along the way.”