Solutions: How one Alabama school is battling COVID reading woes

Rehobeth Elementary School teacher Scotty Matthews instructs students during class Monday, October 18, 2021. Alaina Deshazo for AL.com
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Rehobeth Elementary School teacher Scotty Matthews instructs students during class Monday, October 18, 2021. Alaina Deshazo for AL.com

Credit: Alaina Deshazo for AL.com

Trained educators work on afterschool tutoring – and rely on community support.

Scotty Matthews took a seat on a small bookshelf and peered at a page of poems held by a third-grader in his southeast Alabama classroom.

Matthews, a former tutoring aide who had just come to Rehobeth Elementary School, was accustomed to working with students who needed some extra help with reading.

He asked the student to read a limerick about a monster-like machine that “munches up socks by the pair.”

Tracking along with his finger, the boy kept a steady pace, but paused at a word on the second line.

“Munches,” Matthews prompted. The boy repeated the word, continuing slowly to the end.

Many schools rely on paraprofessionals to give specialized support to teachers. But Rehobeth says trained and experienced aides are key to recent success. The school recently led peer mid- to high-poverty schools in reading scores, and in closing racial and socioeconomic gaps.

Now, as the school wrestles with dips in achievement scores from the pandemic and considers the impact of a third-grade reading law, staff are doubling down on the presence of Title I aides. And they’re expanding that expertise in developing a team of trained reading educators as they work on afterschool tutoring and community support.

Caption
Rebecca Griesbach

Credit: contributed

Rebecca Griesbach
Caption
Rebecca Griesbach

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

“If you don’t have a teacher that has a strong background in word work, or how to crack the code of reading, they’re not going to know how to target specific needs and then support the child in their classroom,” said Rachel Logan, a literacy specialist who consults schools on equitable practices. “They’ll farm them out and say, ‘Something’s wrong with this kid.’”

Virtual interventions and extra K-2 supports funded by federal relief money, experts say, can boost proficiency, but only if teachers like Matthews and his fellow support staff are also trained properly and have high-quality materials.

Rehobeth is working on boosting both those aspects. And staff are working around the clock to reteach foundational skills – such as first-grade phonics – that some students lost during the pandemic.

“In theory, they should be readers by the time they get here,” Matthews said. “That’s not the case for every student.”

Despite pandemic complications, Rehobeth second graders had improved reading scores by 60 points from last fall to spring, according to schoolwide data. That’s five points higher than the national average, and a statistic, school leaders say, that shows its strategy is working.

According to researchers at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, tutoring aides are key for schools developing a variety of interventions. The Center recommends a well-developed plan to identify struggling students and track their responses to regularly scheduled interventions.

That’s where Hannah Chancey, also a Rehobeth graduate, and Gaby Olea, a new bilingual aide who grew up in nearby Enterprise, come in. They coach small groups of students with whiteboards, binders and sometimes playdough in hand.

Words and sentences are like code, experts say, and reading proficiency is built through specific skills work.

A recent Duke University study found that funding additional instructional supports, like teaching assistants, can boost achievement outcomes most in reading – and can play “a key role” in helping students close to passing reach proficiency levels.

As the school reviews its latest internal test scores, it’s seeing some growth.

Barbara Greathouse, the literacy coach at Rehobeth Elementary School, said some of that is likely due to the tutoring push, but classroom teachers are going to continue to play a crucial role moving forward.

“The teachers knew they had a larger job to do because of COVID, and they got it done,” Greathouse said.

Experts agree that good teachers are important, but also recommend specific training, called LETRS, which is grounded in decades worth of research on how students learn to read.

Rehobeth is working to get more teachers trained in effective reading instruction and improve its ability to track students’ progress. The district also will switch to a new reading curriculum next year.

The school still has a ways to go to get back to its former proficiency rates.

Recent ACAP scores show that eight of Matthews’ students -- a little less than half of the class -- scored below benchmarks in language arts. Schoolwide, students scored lowest on reading and literacy questions.

“We’re really hammering these to try to get them up,” he said, pointing to the low scorers at the bottom of the list, who he is now working with as third-graders.

Reading instruction also can be impacted by disparities outside of the classroom — like discipline, attendance and staff turnover — that can limit engagement.

“When schools are seeing academic inequities, we point them to also look at other things that are happening around that,” said Marceline Dubose of the Equity Literacy Institute, such as ways to increase instructional time and make sure every student is engaged with material.

For the week ahead, Matthews will go over the same poems and rehash concepts he wasn’t able to spend as much time on, like teaching students how to identify point of view. He’ll work more with small, targeted groups of students and make time for phonics games.

With extra attention to those instructional methods and help from school-wide interventions, Matthews is hopeful his students will get back on track.

“Their resilience has been amazing,” he said, also praising the efforts from their previous teachers and tutors.

But he knows he’s got a long road ahead of him.

“I feel like there’s no days off,” he said. “It’s intense every day, because I don’t want a student to not pass due to my instruction.”

Rebecca Griesbach writes for AL.com. This story first appeared on AL.com. It is republished through the Solutions Journalism Network.

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This story comes through our partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.