More than 800 DeKalb teachers enrolled in intensive reading training

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

District aids educators’ development amid push to make up for pandemic losses

Students stared at the simple drawings and words on the page before them: Chair. Tree. Fan. Dragon. Bee.

“We’re thinking about what we hear,” said teacher Deianaira Earle to the first graders at John Lewis Elementary School in Atlanta. “When you hear a word, what do you hear at the end?”

The class split into small groups, and with the help of two teachers, began to identify which words rhyme. What seems like a simple task could be the key to progress in the DeKalb County School District, where state assessments show nearly half of third graders can’t read on grade level.

ExploreMilestones scores confirm the impact of COVID-19 on Georgia students

This year, the state’s third-largest school system is rolling out a new intensive training program for teachers focused on the science of reading. Gwinnett County’s school system has embraced a similar approach.

Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, is a national program that aims to show teachers how we learn to read, and how to help students develop language skills. More than 800 DeKalb teachers are signed up for the voluntary program.

“It made me reconsider a lot of things that I was already doing in my classroom,” Earle said after the first of many weekend and evening classes.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The district has invested more than $1 million in federal pandemic aid into the effort so far. Teachers who work with kindergarten, first and second grade students will learn about the science of reading and practical ways to implement that knowledge in the classroom. It will add to their toolbox, explained DeKalb’s Chief Academic Officer Stacy Stepney.

“Ultimately, as a district, we have a responsibility to accelerate the growth of our students,” Stepney said. “With this intense two-year professional development, we will do just that.”

The pandemic slowed progress for students who had to navigate distance learning, in addition to all the other changes in their lives. In DeKalb, the percentage of students who were reading on grade level in third grade dropped by 10 points compared to 2019, the last year full data was available. The district is among the lower-performing metro Atlanta school systems.

District officials, including Stepney, have said the 2022 scores shouldn’t be compared to previous years and should instead be considered a new baseline. But they show just how much changed over the pandemic.

When it comes to pandemic recovery, one of the biggest things students need is time, said Mary Guay, a clinical associate professor of education at the University of Georgia.

ExplorePrevious reporting: Scores from national school test reveal pandemic's effect

“The development is still going to occur — we can’t quick-fix it,” she said. “The journey that kids take when they learn is still going to be the same. You can’t give them things a third grader should know when they need earlier parts of the developmental journey.”

The LETRS program has exploded in popularity over the pandemic. Education Week reported that between 2019 and 2022, there was an eight-fold increase in the number of teachers enrolled. Teachers in DeKalb have been asking for this type of professional learning, said principals and district officials.

“It was like, yes! An answer to our prayers,” said John Lewis Elementary Principal LaShawn McMillan.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

But it’s hard to tell whether the program leads to improved student achievement. Districts and states that have used the program often pair it with other strategies and trainings. Studies about the program note the program helped teachers, but was less clear about the effect on student test scores.

In DeKalb, schools measure student progress throughout the year and use the data to determine where students need help. But some officials have another way of knowing if it’s working: chattering students.

“When kids are talking over each other and the teacher’s like, ‘Calm down, calm down!’” said Lenisera Barnes-Bodison, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. “Good noise — that’s how I know when something is successful.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com