By ROBERT PIERCE
• Daily Leader
At the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, the Literacy First program was implemented district wide in all USD No. 480 buildings.
Educators throughout Liberal schools said the program has made a difference in helping students learn, and Thursday, teachers, principals and other school officials heard some good news from national Literacy First leaders for their implementation of the program in local schools.
At a special meeting of the district’s board of education, Literacy First President Dr. Bill Blokker gave some initial background on the program, noting the process has been operational nationwide for 13 years.
Literacy First currently operates in 19 states in more than 600 schools, 85 to 90 percent of which Blokker said meet state and Adequate Yearly Progress standards every single year. Those numbers are from both elementary and secondary schools.
“We are data hounds,” he said. “We gather all kinds of data on student achievement and the performance of the schools.”
Blokker said one of the things being implemented in USD 480 is My Data First, a Web-based data management system.
“For every school, we know how each student is performing in one of multiple areas of the reading process,” he said.
Blokker said Literacy First works with many K-12 districts in a manner similar to the way it is working with Liberal’s, but he said the local district is exceptional in one way.
“We have never had the commitment at the district level that we are experiencing in this district in any other district,” he said. “We have the superintendent, the assistant superintendent and all the directors’ attention and conversation on a regular basis.”
Blokker said when Literacy First officials visited Liberal schools, a district administrator was on hand for each visit.
“Every time one of our consultants is in here working with professional development and coaching and consulting in the building, a district administrator is with them,” he said. “That is very impressive.”
Blokker said if assistant superintendents, Title I directors or directors of curriculum instruction participated in other schools visits from Literacy First in a manner similar to the way they have in Liberal, it would be a fortunate thing.
“That is something we’re very impressed with, and that is one of the reasons why you’re getting the results that you’re getting,” he said.
Literacy First Senior Consultant Debbie Whitfill said with the program in place in schools, teachers’ jobs have changed significantly, and they have stepped up to meet those changes.
Whitfill said teachers are being asked to do things differently, but she said a good thing about No Child Left Behind, the government mandate under which assessment tests are given, is that schools are held accountable for educating students.
“You know you really have to make an effort as a teacher,” she said. “You start laying their data out on the table and saying look at your data. Don’t tell me things are going great. Kids are not making progress. You are going to have to change.”
Whitfill said this is hard for educators to accept because all teachers want to see themselves as being competent at what they do.
“These people have to manage some very emotional situations,” she said. “They have to manage some very political situations. They have to manage the fact that the person they have to talk to lives down the street from them and your kids play with my kids.”
Whitfill said this is tough, and she said board members will hear grumblings from educators.
“I ask you to be confident in your administrative team and your principals that they know where these grumblings are coming from and they’re doing everything in their power to assist the teachers in getting better,” she said.
Whitfill said the job of a school is not to protect adults, but rather children.
“Children trust us,” she said. “Schools are set up so that we will educate them. We’re going to protect teachers too, and we’re going to help them grow, but everybody’s got to be willing to grow.”
Blokker said Literacy First is, at a minimum, a three-year process.
“It can’t be done in one year,” he said. “We’re changing instructional habits, changing the culture of a building. We’re changing habits that principals have, and it’s not something that you can throw a switch and make an automatic change. It’s a process, and it evolves.”
Blokker said for the first year of implementation with Literacy First, USD 480 schools are seeing improvement well above what is typically seen this soon in the process.
“We’re very pleased with the progress that’s being made,” he said. “When we look at the body of work in this district in comparison to what we’ve seen for 13 years with more than 600 schools, all of your people in buildings are doing very well.”
Blokker explained what he and Whitfill did during their visit to Liberal schools.
“We visited each school and only met for between two hours and 15 minutes and three hours with the principals, assistant principals if they were there and the instructional coaches,” he said. “Our consultants are here doing professional development in the schools, visiting classrooms. We have continual conversations with them about what’s going on in the classroom.”