From ‘Something Wasn’t Working’ to Number One in the State

By Jane Harrison

(Sponsored Content) – An assistant superintendent of instruction shares how special education students made the highest gains in state reading scores she has seen in her 20 years of work.

In education, and especially in special education, lessons are never one-size-fits-all. My district learned that the hard way when we faced concerns that students with characteristics of dyslexia weren’t getting the help they needed in school. That was three years ago, when our district offered limited dyslexia instruction.

As the assistant superintendent of instruction, I strategized with my department, aiming to provide an alternative option to students who weren’t succeeding with a traditional literacy and reading program. Our district is one of the lowest-funded districts in the state, so we had to be very careful about where we were using funds. Sometimes buying a program you think will work doesn’t turn out to be effective, and it seems like such a waste. We needed a program that our teachers would buy into willingly. It had to address the concerns we were hearing from both our teachers and our parents. It had to appeal to all students in special education.

Last year was our first year of implementation, and after a year of hard work and training, we were buzzing with anticipation as we waited for our state score results. We were thrilled to learn that our 75 3rd-graders in special education ranked number one in the state of South Carolina last year. Our 4th- and 5th- graders in special education were all in the top 5% in the state. Here’s the path we took to get there.

Building a Strong Foundation

To get started, we essentially resurfaced our groundwork. Students in middle school often still lacked the skills and strategies generally acquired in elementary school.  Some students who never qualified for special education, but were considered at-risk, spent all or most of their time in some form of intervention. Something wasn’t working.

Two years ago, legislators started to enforce mandates that would require teachers to be trained to support students with reading disabilities. Legislators provided modules to every teacher, whether they were special or general education. It was yet another prompt to adjust our curriculum to fit the needs of all students in special education.

We’ve used an intervention program by Fountas and Pinnell with great success within our district. But when we analyzed it, we found that it didn’t provide a multisensory approach that included decoding and phonics, typical tripping points for students with dyslexia. We started the change to our curriculum by offering teachers intensive training on the Orton-Gillingham method: an explicit, multisensory approach to teaching students with reading disabilities how to read and write. We needed to bring a sharper focus on decoding and phonemic awareness into the classroom. We eventually found Reading Horizons Discovery, which focuses on an explicit, multisensory approach to both.

Rallying the Team

Without excellent teachers and general teacher buy-in, the implementation wouldn’t have been as effective as it was. We made sure that we could provide a user-friendly, all-encompassing program that would sync with other software to get everyone on board.

The coaching and professional development piece of our initiative has truly been a game-changer. By the end of our back-to-school training this year, all 40 elementary special education teachers were ready to properly, effectively use the program. I typically do not mandate things to look and be a certain way, but since data was showing that students were getting left behind in intervention, we needed to learn together and help each other out for the benefit every individual student. We sent one of our educators to Utah to be trained on the methodology behind Discovery as well as the software itself, which equipped her to support our teachers through a professional learning community. They are able to discuss what is working well, and what challenges they’re facing.

Sharing Best Practices

After our success with last year’s state exam scores, Special Education Services from the South Carolina Department of Education reached out to us to figure out how we achieved such progress. The department invited us to share three presentations to special education teachers across the state about our new processes and our journey to improvement and success.

Some parents have reached out to teachers, saying they are seeing their student succeed in reading for the first time. They know we are doing something different because they are seeing progress in their children.

The best advice I can give ELA teachers is to know your readers. Determine their strengths and weaknesses individually, and respond to their challenges in a way that will help them explicitly.

Whether they learn best through a traditional lesson, independent reading, a workshop, a mini lesson, or shared reading group, identify what they’ll respond to and you’ll see the light bulbs go off in your students. Their abilities and confidence in reading will grow.

I’m grateful that our district is centered on finding a solution and being willing to make a change. We never want to think that we can’t meet the needs of students, whether they’re in general or special education.

We have done the right thing. We’re now providing students with the right tools to reach their full potential, no matter what level that may be.

Jane Harrison is the assistant superintendent of instruction for Anderson School District One in South Carolina.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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