EDUCATION FEATURE: Reading Road Map
The Courier Herald – September 13, 2018
Editor's note: The following is the second in a three-part series on the Dublin City Schools mobile literacy lab initiative. Read more about the Big Green Reading Machine in Friday's edition.
Fred Williams' vision for the Dublin City Schools mobile literacy lab initiative, which is hitting the road next week aboard a bus nicknamed The Big Green Reading Machine, formed in his mind out of a number of different ideas he gathered in various chapters of his life and career.
The third-year superintendent, a second-generation educator, points to the work of colleagues, his history as a teacher and school principal and doctoral research in the area of early literacy during grad school as influences in creation of the concept: a rolling classroom designed to aid young children and their families in the effort to build reading, writing and speaking skills.
The revolutionary tool – one he believes has the potential for far-reaching effects on the future of local students and the community – originated with something he observed while growing up in Plantation Florida, where his mother worked as a Title I coordinator for Broward County Public Schools – the second largest school system in Florida and now the sixth largest in the nation.
"They did a lot. They had vehicles and buses that helped parents in the same vein," Williams said. "She was particularly over the parent-involvement, and I had a lot of opportunities to witness her in action."
The opportunity to apply that concept to literacy came years later, after Williams had worked as a teacher/coach and then principal at both the elementary and middle school levels of Dublin City Schools. He took a number of unique approaches in each of those roles to the objective of ensure students entering the early grades came in on equal footing when it came to literacy skills.
"I looked at ways we could get out into the Dublin community," Williams said. "As an elementary principal, I made my way around with teachers and family engagement coordinators to different daycares, the housing authority and other places, and I saw success as an elementary school principal in that practice – just getting back to some of the basics in our school system."
All that remained in the back of his mind until last year, when friend Hugh Kight, a Dublin native and former Laurens County administrator now serving as superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, began developing plans for his district to take on a literacy bus initiative.
The program, which Kight called the "Eagle Express Bus," launched last fall as the offshoot of a scrapped plan to create a stationary literacy lab.
"When I began, I was going to put it in one of the old buildings out here and have it in one spot and have people come," Kight said. "Then I got to talking about it with my assistant superintendent, and we started talking about a school bus."
Putting the community-wide resource on wheels offered the school system an opportunity to take it directly to residents around central locations in Tarrytown, Uvalda, Ailey, Mount Vernon and Long Pond.
Kight developed his literacy bus in a similar fashion to Williams', raising money from private sponsors and writing multiple grants to help purchase a used bus, repurpose it as a rolling classroom and stock it with technology and hire staff to put on board.
"It was a prison bus," Kight said. "Now we're going to use the bus to keep people out of prison."
Williams followed his lead when he pitched the idea for a Dublin City Schools literacy bus to his board of education in November, having already put together an extensive and well-researched plan for how it would work.
The mobile classroom, much like Kight's in Montgomery County, targets children in the critical early years of life, while they're still in the care of parents and guardians, in hopes of catalyzing development of vocabulary that can only take place in what Williams calls a "print-rich environment." Learning as many words as possible – as early on in a child's development as possible – helps lay the foundation for reading, writing and speaking skills built in the first few years of school.
"What we've experienced is that a lot of students are coming into pre-k and kindergarten vocabulary deficient," Williams told the Board of Education when proposing the project last November. "They're coming in a couple years behind… We're trying to get more kids ready prior to coming to pre-k, and to be able to support their parents in that endeavor as well."
The theoretical basis of the program is found in research surrounding a literacy gap observed in classrooms both locally and nationwide that is spelled out in shocking detail through a 2003 article by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley entitled "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3."
Their study placed "smart" microphones in households for a period of two and a half years to record every word used by individuals inside. They sifted through the reams of data in hopes of finding out how many words developing children are exposed to on a daily basis, and how that relates to the development of their vocabulary.
Participating families were classified by socio-economic status in upper-, middle- and lower-class tiers.
The findings drew an unmistakable connection between rates of word exposure and vocabulary acquisition in those homes. Data showed that children of upper-class families hear, on average, 2,153 words per waking hour, while those of working-class parents hear only 1,251. Children in welfare-class households were exposed to an average of just 616 per hour.
That difference, by the time a child reaches ages 3, 4, 5 and the point of entry into pre-k or kindergarten, builds up a gap of more than 30 million words. And the disparity is believed to have a direct impact on the speed at which young students are able acquire their ability to read, write and speak at grade level.
Early-grades students who enter pre-k and kindergarten without as solid a foundation when it comes to those literacy skills spend a great deal of time trying to make up the ground, which can set them back for years and perhaps a lifetime.
"We know that from pre-k to third grade, really grade 2, kids are learning to read, and from there, about fourth grade on, third grade on, they're reading to learn," Williams said, pointing out that that teachers in the early grades pay close attention to each student's progress in areas of oral language – their ability to pronounce and perceive different sounds – letter identification and language fluency.
That journey becomes increasingly difficult for students challenged with developing those skills while also trying to move forward with their grade-level material.
"We treat them all the same when they come into kindergarten, but if our kids have not been exposed to that, it puts you behind," Kight said. "I listened to two superintendents talking about it, and said, instead of making excuses, let's do something outside the box. We know this is a fact, so let's do something about it. That's a little of what drove us to find another way."
Kight said that Montgomery County and Dublin City are two of at least four school systems he knows of that have put together this type of mobile literacy lab initiative.
The Eagle Express Bus, in its first year, served a number of young kids and families around Montgomery County on weekly visits to residential areas, as well as a weekly stop at local daycare centers. The bus, in the first few weeks of the new school year, has been looking to build its numbers back up to previous levels after most of its participants began attending actual school last month.
But the effects of the program are already being felt.
"Teachers tell me about the kids that came off the bus," Kight said. "They said they're really eager to learn. We identified a kid with speech (problems) and had a person come down and check it out. We identified one we knew was going to be gifted. He was our model student… It just gives you a way to look at some kids."
Still, much of the program's impact will go unmeasured until progress begins to be reflected in student performance both in the classroom and on standardized tests.
"This is something that's going to take a couple years to see," Kight said. "We know these kids will be better off next year, whether they're starting pre-k or kindergarten. We just want to expose them to the vocabulary because with these kids, TV is usually the babysitter. We can go on field trip adventures every day by reading books."
Williams has a similar hope for the Big Green Reading Machine, which will begin serving its inaugural crop of local kids on Monday.
The bus, which was completed ahead of schedule, will be visiting locations around the community on predetermined stops where those in the surrounding areas are invited to bring their children and take part in roughly an hour and a half-long session of interactive literacy activities geared as much toward the children themselves as their parents, who will be encouraged to take steps at home to foster literacy skills by reading with and talking to their kids on a regular basis.
The bus will also have a small library of books on board that children will be able to check out.
"We'll be able to hand out books to students to take home with parents that can be read in the home, and they come when the bus comes back to that stop again, based on the schedule, and they can return that book and get a new one," Williams said. "Our philosophy, though, is even if they don't return the book, we know we've got a book in that home."
The plan goes back to creating the "print-rich environment" that Williams puts at the foundation of every facet of primary education. Literacy is a peg on which every academic subject, and any given student's success in life, ultimately hangs.
"We know that reading affects every content area," Williams said. "A kid's ability to read really determines the job they have. We know that everyone might not go to college, and that there's opportunity for a skilled workforce. We understand that. But also, we understand that we want to give every kid an opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Give every kid the opportunity to make a choice, make sure that kids have the opportunity to be able to do and become a professional in the job that they want to do, versus the job that they have to do."
"The average person is going to change professions a couple of times," he added. "The key is if we can teach someone to be an effective communicator, a problem-solver and a lifelong learner, it doesn't matter what profession they're in. If they have those skills, they're going to be able to be effective. We know literacy is the key to them gaining that skill."