Launching into the future

Grand View Elementary preschooler and Joan Scheuerman learning together

On a hot, sunny Monday in June, Burlington Elementary students filled the school’s classrooms, library, and gym. The energy that permeated the building was unusual for the time of year – normally on a summer day, students might be at a community pool or lounging at home. Instead, young learners could be found listening intently to stories in reading circles, sounding out words together around small tables, and completing innovative design challenges.

This summer, Burlington was one of 11 elementary school sites hosting Project Launch, an extended school year literacy program. Monday through Thursday throughout the month of June, nearly 2,000 St. Vrain elementary school students attended the all-day program to build on the reading progress they made during the regular school year and accelerate their learning to prepare for the year ahead.

“Project Launch is a comprehensive extended learning initiative that allows us to meet students where they are and provide increased instructional time for them to continue to learn and grow,” said Kerin McClure, principal at Burlington Elementary. “Over the summer, we often see regression in literacy. Through this program, we aim to ‘launch’ students into success next year.”

Project Launch increased instructional time through the summer with a goal of ensuring that all students are proficient in reading by third grade. Research has shown that early literacy is crucial in setting young students up for future success.

“Until third grade, students learn to read. After that, they read to learn,” McClure says.

More than 85 percent of today’s curriculum is taught by reading1. No matter the subject – from math and science to social studies and language arts – students get the bulk of their information from printed materials, digital resources, and whiteboard lessons. Because of this, a strong reading foundation for young students is critical.

Project Launch’s program design provided robust and targeted instruction in the areas of phonological awareness, phonics, and reading fluency. These components are critical to reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Each day, students received targeted literacy intervention using the Orton-Gillingham approach, participated in a robust literacy block to deepen and transfer reading comprehension skills, and applied their reading skills via content learning explorations in science, math, art, music, and drama. This format ensured that students received double the typical number of instructional hours in literacy-focused activities in a school day. Under the instruction of more than 200 St. Vrain teachers, students engaged in small-class instruction with 12 students in each class.

For teachers, the full-day format of Project Launch offered a unique opportunity to dedicate focused energy to one topic – literacy – and to participate in rich, job-embedded professional development. Teachers worked together and looked at data every day, making lesson adjustments based on daily evaluations.

“From a staff standpoint, teachers have been inspired and energized by the program,” said McClure. “Teachers had an opportunity to get to know students who will be in their classroom during the coming year, and to consider elements of the program that they could integrate into the classroom year round. We put a strong emphasis on professional development.”

Launching into learning

Through themed units, each lasting a week, teachers motivated and energized students around certain topics – life science explorations, water wonders, engineering and design, weather – with integrated literacy curriculum and research-based practices. Specials like technology and physical education were also included in the curriculum, extending the classroom and aligning to support literacy and the weekly theme.

“We have a really good balance of targeted literacy and engaging activities and topics that get students excited about reading,” McClure said.

During their outer space-themed week, Fall River Elementary Project Launch learners were visited by Mission Specialist Rick Hieb, a former NASA astronaut with local ties. Hieb acted as a content expert for the students, helping to connect their reading and research, and stressed the importance of fundamental skills learned in elementary school.

“Right now, you are learning what you need to know to be an astronaut, or whatever it is you want to be,” said Hieb. “No matter what you do in life, you have got to be able to read.”

Hieb explained to the students that in addition to reading, the skills needed to be an astronaut are not much different than what they are learning now – establishing good habits, perseverance, and cooperating with others.

Educating our Youngest Learners

One teacher team that really understands the importance of fundamental skills is the staff at Spark! Discovery Preschool. Tasked with educating the district’s youngest learners, teachers at Spark! take a developmental approach to educating kids who have an emerging understanding of literacy.

“We strive to create rich learning environments that develop all the domains of a child’s development – physical, social-emotional, cognitive, language, and literacy,” said Paige Gordon, principal at Spark!. “In preschool, pre-literacy skills are introduced in ways that students can actively engage – songs, stories, imaginative play, exploration, and games.”

Some of the other foundational components that help students move toward whole word reading include the development of language, vocabulary development, oral language, alphabetic knowledge, phonological and phonemic awareness, writing, concepts of print, and more. Spark! utilizes a curriculum called Fundations, which supports understanding of letter-sound and letter name associations by incorporating multi-sensory instruction and manuscript letter formation.

“Literacy and language development start early in life and are highly correlated with school achievement,” Gordon says. “We want to ensure that preschoolers are set up for success in the future.”

Mead Reads

At Mead Elementary School, teachers are dedicated to seeing that their students have access to library resources to keep up their reading year-round. While the school was undergoing construction this summer, principal Betsy Ball rented space in a facility across the street, relocating much of their library collection to ensure the continuation of their annual Summer Fun Reading Program. On Tuesday nights, Mead teachers opened the makeshift library to host story time and let students check out books. The program is open to all students, regardless of their reading level, but special invites were extended to struggling readers. For those students, teachers created weekly book bags with individualized materials to help them learn and grow, and included incentives for reading at home and logging their progress.

For Kenny and Paula Fitzgerald, the school’s commitment to engaging students and ensuring access to resources is key in helping their children – fifth grader Aiden and second grader Emma – become confident readers.

“As parents, we want to teach our children the importance of literacy, as reading is the foundation of all learning. Summer reading is also a great way to always be increasing their vocabulary and many of the books are good references to learn about history, science, and world events,” says Paula. “We also look at summer reading as a way to bring our family together as we often listen to books or read aloud together. This makes it a more interactive learning experience.”

Through the use of myON, a personalized digital library, students across the district are able to keep up with reading at home year-round, especially during the summer. The app personalizes reading by recommending books based on a student’s interests, reading level, and ratings of books they’ve read, and forges a home-to-school connection by allowing students to access library books on their personal devices.

The staff at Mead Elementary encourages the use of myON with a healthy sense of competition, and go as far as hosting pep rallies to cheer about reading. They also create contests and offer incentives and prizes.

“myON truly acts like a motivational tool to keep kids engaged over breaks. The myON program makes it entertaining to read and is a good source of positive screen time in which your kids are being educated and yet they don’t even know it,” said Paula. “myON has kick started our children’s love for reading which has made them seek out good books to read and has created a new helpful habit of reading.”

“We try to make it fun and encourage kids with rewards, but it’s more important that they read and grow,” said Ball.

A Strong Foundation

Project Launch is just one of many strategies across St. Vrain to raise student literacy achievement and provide a stronger academic foundation in the early grades. Results from the program indicate that the intervention had a significant, positive impact on student reading skills, reflecting the power of bringing together best practices and research-based approaches to improving student learning and achievement.

One of the most important predictors of graduating from high school is reading proficiently by the end of third grade1. Literacy is crucial to ensuring that students are motivated and engaged throughout their educational career and St. Vrain is dedicated to helping every student lay a strong foundation for success in school and beyond.

St. Vrain Valley Schools