All reading, all the time

Early intervention is best.

That’s the philosophy, Karen Barber says, that lies at the heart of a seven-year partnership between Santa Rosa County School District and the University of West Florida’s Community Outreach Research and Learning Center.

Barber is the director of federal programs for Santa Rosa schools. Her domain includes programs that use Title I money and federal funds intended to help low-income students.

Since 2008, Title I money has funded research by Carla Thompson and a group of observers who have watched nearly every elementary school teacher in the district at work.

The grant is for $53,449 a year.

“We are scientifically able to demonstrate that our interventions are working,” Barber says. “You can’t argue with the data. You can’t argue with the results that we’re getting.”

Loop of constant improvement

Since the project began, Thompson’s work has become a feedback loop that helps teachers focus on continual improvement.

“We have a philosophy that we want to provide as early intervention as possible so we get our kids who are below grade level on grade level,” Barber says.

Classroom teachers at all 17 elementary schools, as well as specialists, special education teachers and paraprofessionals get the training, which highlights the importance of small-group instruction in helping improve a child’s reading skill.

The observers conduct 1,500 observations a year, looking for 85 activities that may occur in reading instruction.

What are they looking for?

— Do they work in small groups?

— Are they doing a word ladder exercise, or a picture walk?

— Do students work independently?

— Is the teacher leading the discussion? Are the students asking questions?

Thompson takes the observational data and at the end of the year, she gets the reading test data and she matches them.

“With that data, we can say which activities are significant contributors to achievement and which ones are not,” Thompson said.

Thompson shares those results with principals to use in staff development or sometimes with parents groups.

They started in 2008 with four reading models. Now there are up to 64 teaching models that can be used in a classroom.

“The basic areas we look at match the FCAT: word study, fluency, comprehension and small group,” Thompson says.

What has all that focus meant?

Focus on reading

— Kindergarten shows the most growth of any year.

“The growth in kindergarten is probably the greatest every year that we do the study, and they have very strong readers in Santa Rosa,” Thompson says.

— “So much effort has been put on the struggling reader that now the gap is almost completely gone. It’s (narrowed) every year since this program started in 2008. And that’s the best, most important finding.”

—  ESE referrals have decreased significantly, Thompson says.

Thompson says the study reinforces the importance of the concept of early intervention and early parent and teacher involvement.

It is a secret, Thompson believes that is key to Santa Rosa’s success in posting — year after year — some of the best reading scores in the state.

“They are focused on early reading intervention every year,” she said.

“It is something that you are focused on and not just one of the six courses the child goes to,” she said. “Reading should be the major focus, and all of the effort is concentrated on professional development of the teachers.”

Originally published March, 19, 2015.