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Training helps teachers cope through pandemic

By Jeanna Baxter White

WordMaster Media Group

for Mebane Foundation

When Davie County Schools launched DavieLEADS four years ago, they could not have known the initiative’s professional development component would provide a lifeline to teachers as a pandemic forced them to quickly adapt to new ways of teaching.     

“No one could have been prepared for a pandemic. However, a lot of what we had put into place prior to March 13 through DavieLEADS, like PLC meetings, guided reading, Heggerty, and Letterland, carried us through the spring and laid a foundation for our teachers as they now offer a combination of face-to-face and virtual instruction,” said Jennifer Lynde, chief academic officer for Davie County Schools.

Professional development has been a primary focus of DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), a five-year early literacy initiative funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation, since the beginning. The goals are to improve kindergarten readiness from 70 percent to 90 percent and to increase reading proficiency in third grade from 66 percent to 80 percent by 2022.

To meet those goals, the grant includes funding for training as well as support staff, including

grade teachers in Davie County Schools (DCS). Each year’s PD focus builds upon the previous year.

That training has proven vital as teachers master new methods of teaching and seek to fill achievement gaps caused by the sudden transition to virtual instruction.

Of particular importance are the weekly professional learning community (PLC) meetings, which allow teachers to share expertise and work together to improve teaching skills and drive the academic performance of students. Teachers work as a team to clarify the state’s educational standards and to determine the best way to teach them, create common formative assessments (CFAs), analyze data, and plan extra assistance for students not meeting grade-level expectations.

Since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, DCS has worked to provide face-to-face and virtual instruction. Currently, Pre-K students have the option to be in school five days a week, elementary school students 4 days a week with remote learning on Wednesdays, and middle and high school students are on an AB schedule that splits instruction into three days online and two days face-to-face.

The school system established DCS Virtual for families who preferred full remote learning.

Offering both options required a shift in personnel with some teachers changing grade levels or schools and others transitioning to full-time virtual instruction. All agree that the shift was made easier because of the district’s established and standardized PLC process.

“I didn’t know what PLCs would look like as I moved into virtual teaching, but no ground was lost,” said Kristy Brown, DCS Virtual first grade. “Our new team picked up like we had been together forever, and we have continued to have the weekly conversations about the standards and students’ data…”

“We have six elementary schools, two with new principals and a third with a principal who is new to elementary school, as well as a new coordinator for DCS Virtual,” said Lynde. “Being able to continue what we had in place prior to the pandemic, even with new leadership, speaks volumes.”

PLCs were the primary focus during the first year of the initiative, and she recalls how difficult some of those early meetings were, as the DavieLEADS consultants and literacy coaches pushed teachers to delve more deeply into the standards and to examine their methods of teaching. “As they became more comfortable with the meetings and the process being used to clarify the standards, and began to see the benefits in their classrooms, they embraced the process and it became second nature.”

“One teacher shared that she was so thankful for the clarifying documents. As we went into remote learning, she was able to utilize the clarifying document, previously created collaboratively by her team, as she helped plan her piece of the instruction,” said DavieLEADS Literacy Coach Amy Spade.

“Our teachers are seeing the value of PLCs more than ever,” Lynde said. “PLCs are not just something we said we need to do or an initiative we started that we have to carry through. Many teachers you talk to say ‘I feel like I’m a new teacher all over again,’ and we know how much new teachers depend on each other. With the pandemic, the PLCs are even more crucial because of the collaboration piece that teachers are relying on more than ever.”

Sunni Collins, instructional coach at William R. Davie Elementary, agreed. “Our collaborative conversations allow us to support each other and think about instructional practices from different perspectives while analyzing student learning and planning instruction to meet their needs. Having already built trusting relationships and a foundation of collaboration around student outcomes has been extremely beneficial in addressing the learning gaps created by the school shut-downs.”

While DavieLEADS and the professional learning community meetings focus on language arts, Spade said the benefits have carried over into other subjects like math.

“There are a lot more gaps in math because of the way it is structured, particularly when you talk about standards being taught remotely compared to in-person… Had our teachers not done the work in ELA (English language arts) they wouldn’t have the clarifying procedure to carry over to other subjects.”

The value of the DavieLEADS initiative extends beyond PLCs. Another first-year focus, Letterland, a phonics-based program that teaches students how to read, write, and spell, has also played a vital role during the pandemic, according to Literacy Coach Renee Hennings-Gonzalez. During the spring, she and Spade worked on modifying Letterland Smartboard slides so teachers could still record themselves teaching Letterland lessons to fidelity and upload them to their learning management system for the students during remote instruction.

“This fall, as our K-2 population has had four days face-to-face and one day of remote instruction a week. We’ve taken the Letterland slides and edited them further to make sure that the program is met with fidelity so that students are still getting access to all of the content in order to prevent forward gaps,” said Hennings-Gonzalez. “This supports teachers in meeting grade-level criteria while catching students up from any gaps from the spring.”

In addition to Letterland, students are reaping the benefits of Heggerty, a phonemic awareness program backed by both research and science that was a focus of DavieLEADS last year. A phoneme is a speech sound. It is the smallest unit of language and has no inherent meaning. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds. Understanding that letters in words are systematically represented by sounds is a critical first step in learning to read and to write.

The curriculum was introduced as a pilot program in a few Pre-K and kindergarten classes right before virtual instruction began. As a result of the positive response, it is now being used in all Pre-K – first-grade classes and is also helping to combat and prevent learning gaps.

“We are so grateful to the Mebane Foundation for funding the DavieLEADS initiative. If we had not already had so many of these foundational pieces in place, I think adapting during the pandemic would have been a lot more challenging,” said Lynde.

The Mebane Foundation in Mocksville  supports collaborations and partnerships among educational professionals (public and private), business leaders, elected officials, and the community and has served as a catalyst by granting more than $17 million to educational program partners across the state. The Foundation focuses resources to ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their highest potential in school, career, and life.