When Florida’s Broward County Public Schools added Reading Corps tutors to several area preschools in the 2018-19 school year, there was hope the additional trained adults in the classrooms would help the young students gain valuable pre-reading skills and allow for more opportunities for language development.
No one predicted that just a year later, a pandemic would disrupt the preschoolers’ first formal education experience, or that the need to support struggling learners would grow even greater. The Reading Corps partnership in Broward and in nearby Miami-Dade County Public Schools continued virtually and in-person during the pandemic. Now, the focus is on intensifying and expanding the classroom literacy support in those districts and statewide, said Shevrin Jones, executive director of Florida Reading Corps.
“Reading is the one foundation of a child that we can't get wrong,” said Jones, who is also a state senator. “We have to get it right.”
Educators nationwide are implementing post-COVID-19 strategies for learning recovery and acceleration that avoids remedial lessons. High-quality and high-dosage tutoring based on students’ individualized needs is an approach advocated by the U.S. Department of Education. In recent guidance, the department highlighted the Louisiana Department of Education’s efforts to provide tutoring for all students for at least 30 minutes three times per week, and to provide comprehensive materials aligned to state academic standards through its Accelerate program.
Other organizations, such as the Learning Policy Institute, also promote high-quality tutoring programs that focus on students’ strengths and are safe, equitable and connected to classroom instruction.
To be effective, tutors and classroom teachers also need to have well-coordinated routines and relationships so their roles are complementary and cohesive.
“If you just build that relationship with the teacher, it goes smoothly,” said Yulitza Bohorquez, a preschool literacy interventionist with Reading Corps working at Carol City Elementary School in Miami Gardens, Florida.
For example, a tutor might be targeting letter sounds in their intervention session, but they might work with a classroom teacher to see what sounds have already been taught in the classroom, or what sounds they feel like the student could benefit from practicing
When the pandemic forced schools to close, Bohorquez offered to help the classroom teacher find online resources to make the virtual lessons engaging for students. And when the class was learning how to dissect words into syllables, she told the teacher she had a song to help students break apart words. She alternates with the classroom teacher to work with students who need more support and those who are advanced, as well as mixed and whole classroom lessons.
“It has been amazing because I know their progress. I know who they are,” said Bohorquez, who is planning to get her masters degree in education and eventually become a principal.
‘One chance to do early childhood right’
Layne Polakoff is the curriculum supervisor for school readiness Broward County Public schools, whose job includes working with other organizations that support early learning efforts, including private preschool providers. Currently, Reading Corps tutors work in 11 Broward public and private preschools supporting classes with reading, writing and language development skills. Reading Corps tutors commit to one or more years of working with a school.
“We only get one chance to do early childhood right, so we want to be able to give children and organizations the opportunity to be able to have the best opportunities for the future,” said Polakoff, whose office in located in one of the district’s preschools where Reading Corps tutors work.
He said the district values its partnership with Reading Corps because strong early literacy curricula and instruction can help prevent the need for remediation for students in later grades. The earlier a student can receive personalized supports, the better, he said.
Florida state law requires screening for all public school kindergarten students within the first 30 days of the school year. According to data from the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener, 57% of kindergarten students taking the Star Early Literacy assessment in fall 2020 performed well enough to be determined “ready for kindergarten.” That was up from 53% in fall 2019.
The results of the screener also help teachers plan lessons for individual students.
Placing Reading Corps tutors in Broward County preschools first starts with a conversation with the school principal or director, said Polakoff. Since tutors are non-school district employees, it’s important that the school leader is supportive of the Reading Corps collaboration, and that the school has a need for extra reading support. The school systems are not required to help pay tutors’ stipends, which Reading Corps provides, but schools are asked to give coaching support to the tutors.
Polakoff said that when the school district wanted to add more tutors, it requested — and received — financial support from the Children’s Services Council of Broward County.
While Reading Corps measures students’ progress over a school year, Polakoff said the school district is planning to track Reading Corps students’ reading development through the 3rd grade. The first cohort of preschool students who had support from Reading Corps tutors are now in 1st grade, and with the pandemic disruptions, some of the data from the students’ kindergarten year is missing, he said.
The goal is to make sure students are reading on grade level by 3rd grade, Polakoff said.
Targeting specific literacy skills
Reading Corps attempts to bridge the research on early literacy instruction to on-the-ground practice, said Anne Sinclair, Chief Learning Officer for Reading & Math, Inc., which is the organization that oversees Reading Corps, Math Corps and other AmeriCorps programs. In other words, Reading Corps trains tutors in evidence-based literacy instruction and matches them with schools who have a need for the extra support.
To the young students, however, the tutor is a natural addition to the class. “They really support every minute of the whole class school day,” said Sinclair, who is a former special education teacher.
Whether they are singing songs about sounds and syllables, finding online resources to support virtual learners or helping a child work through a misunderstanding with a friend, the tutor is there to support the classroom teacher and students, Sinclair said.
“They're really just making sure that every moment of a child's day is literacy and math rich,” she said.
The evidence-based approaches Reading Corps tutors use are based on recommendations from the National Reading Panel and the Early Literacy Panel and the Institute of Education Sciences, Sinclair said.
Tutors not only provide the specific targeted literacy and math skills each student demonstrates, but they also work with the classroom teacher to monitor students’ progress. Tutors have the support of an in-school coach and a Reading Corps coach to help facilitate communications between the teacher and tutor, as well as guide data-based decision-making for interventions, Sinclair said.
The pandemic has made this system of support for young learners even more urgent, Sinclair said.
“We know that the need is great in every state,” she said. “There are more students who need supplemental support than there are adults to support them.”