Guest Columnist

The drive to close literacy gaps must continue

Executive Director of Middle Schools for the Cedar Rapids Community School Disctrict Dr. Carlos Grant (center) speaks to Laurie Worden (left) and Rochelle Sowers (right) both with Kirkwood Community College's Workplace Learning Connection, following a session on Reaching All Students during the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex in downtown Cedar Rapids on Thursday, September 20, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Executive Director of Middle Schools for the Cedar Rapids Community School Disctrict Dr. Carlos Grant (center) speaks to Laurie Worden (left) and Rochelle Sowers (right) both with Kirkwood Community College's Workplace Learning Connection, following a session on Reaching All Students during the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex in downtown Cedar Rapids on Thursday, September 20, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, our mission is to equip every learner with a plan, pathway and passion for their future. Literacy is especially fundamental to this mission and is required for students to access the learning they deserve. Our state and school district have a long history of academic excellence. However, our student achievement data indicates we have great variance in student performance in our middle schools at both state and district levels.

Iowa ranks 26th out of 52 states and territories in reading proficiency, according to the 2017 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) for all students. However, when broken down by demographic subgroup, Iowa ranks 52nd out of 52 states and territories in performance of African American students in 4th grade reading. Within our school district context, only 66 percent of our middle school students are proficient readers as measured by the Iowa Assessment in 2017-18. In addition, disparities between demographic groups are very substantial. Specifically, there is a 39 percent achievement gap between white and black students as well as a 19 percent gap between white and Hispanic students.

We intend to change this reality. We believe this change comes from bold actions on the part of school leaders. Accordingly, over the last nine months, our middle school principal team has partnered with the Iowa Reading Research Center to build knowledge about adolescent literacy as we prepared to lead and support our teachers and students in the coming years. Our journey was divided into four phases over the course of this school year.

This journey’s first phase was to establish a compelling case for change with our principal team. We believe that sustainable, lasting change must be driven at the school level by the principal and teachers. In CRCSD, we have six middle schools, each led by a committed, talented principal. Accordingly, we invested heavily in providing the space and time for our leaders to:

• Analyze current literacy data.

• Discuss current challenges that they observe in the data and their lived experiences.

• Identify opportunities to leverage moving forward.

Our goal was to provide consistent and structured time for each principal to develop a compelling case for change in their buildings around literacy. While a daunting challenge, our principal team embraced this challenge.

The second phase expanded our conversation beyond the principal team to include key players from each school to engage in monthly literacy meetings. These key players included principals, instructional coaches, and champion teachers who were willing to apply learned strategies and approaches.

Next, we sought to build shared beliefs and vision for literacy instruction. Dr. Deborah Reed and the Iowa Reading Research Center team provided professional learning on effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for literacy within middle schools which also provided the foundational knowledge for our discussion of beliefs. Through this process, we came to consensus on five core beliefs:

• All students have the potential to read on grade level.

• High-quality core instruction and intervention are both essential.

• Core instruction must meet the demands of the Iowa Core State Standards.

• Secondary literacy instruction and MTSS structures must be built for adolescents.

• Tiered interventions must be more intensive than core instruction.

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Our efforts accelerated greatly in our fourth phase as we narrowed our focus to aligning resources and knowledge around quality core literacy instruction. Grounded in our core beliefs, we began to unpack the three instructional shifts called for by the Iowa Core Standards:

• Providing regular practice with complex texts and their academic language.

• Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational.

• Building knowledge through content-rich non-fiction.

Our work to improve literacy at the middle school level in CRCSD has just begun and much work remains ahead. We are excited about the journey we have started this year with the Iowa Reading Research Center. We look forward to the impact this work will have on the lives of our students.

• Carlos Grant is the executive director for middle schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District. Grant is leaving the district and Adam Zimmerman has been named as the next executive director.

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