The Early Grades Matter

  • Written by: Theresa Jennings
  • Photos by: Kerri McDermid

Photo: Jessica Schrader, first grade teacher at Columbine Elementary

Think back to your childhood and remember the excitement you felt when you saw your teacher walking around with a new worksheet, not just any worksheet, but a connect the dot worksheet. There was the mystery of discovering what image would appear, figuring out the next number in your sequence and knowing that these little points were part of a larger picture that you unveiled after connecting all of the dots. Now think of how students learn to read and write and the connections they make on their academic journey. First, you learn the letters and how to write them, then the sound each letter makes, soon students begin learning sight words and inferring what additional words could be included in the text on the page based on the illustrations.

Making connections are an important part of literacy and biliteracy, especially in the early years. The connections students make when they are learning to read and write can be thought of as dots on worksheets, or connections to past knowledge, new words, future growth and the foundation for a competitive advantage. Through collaboration between passionate teachers, knowledgeable librarians, tenacious media staff and strong external partners, St. Vrain Valley Schools leads the charge to provide world-class literacy instruction that makes reading and writing relevant to all students.

St. Vrain began to build a culture of literacy by uniting stakeholders throughout the district and community. This movement within St. Vrain allowed a shift from programs that support leveled readers to a curriculum that asks all students to read at grade level. By building a program from the ground up, and having all stakeholders at the table to help with decisions, St. Vrain has intentionally created a program that closes the literacy gap between students.

For Jessica Schrader, a fifth-year, first grade teacher at Columbine Elementary in Longmont, teaching literacy begins through building connections with students and creating a community in the classroom.

“I make sure kids know this is a safe place to be,” said Schrader. “That way, when we start learning the hard stuff, my students know that they have a support system and a safe place to try new things.”

Throughout St. Vrain Valley Schools, reading and writing are incorporated into every subject from math, to science, to technology, to art. Teachers are utilizing tools and resources to do deep dives into content areas. Through myON, a digital personal literacy platform, students not only read about a subject, but some passages are read aloud to the students. This allows everyone to work with the same content.

As a district, St. Vrain is intentional in how biliteracy is supported in our classrooms. District leadership partnered with experts from the University of Colorado Boulder to navigate and transform how biliteracy looks in PK-12 environments, and create strategies to best support all of our students.

The biliteracy work St. Vrain is doing is proactive explains Susan W. Hopewell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Program Chair for the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education. Including biliteracy teachers in the pilot year for the new program allowed Ruth Hanna, St. Vrain’s Bilingual and Elementary English Language Learner Coordinator to provide extra support to our biliteracy teachers through professional development. The extra support, coupled with classroom visits and collaboration, ensured biliteracy teachers were able to identify and adjust the curriculum as it was implemented districtwide after the pilot year.

“A teacher is called...it is not just something you do.”

- Stephen King, fourth grade teacher, Centennial Elementary

Photo: Stephen King, fourth grade teacher at Centennial Elementary

The new program asks all students to read at grade level and biliteracy students are learning the same texts in two languages with proper supports in place. The English Language Acquisition (ELA) Program that is led by Hanna is designed to offer educational experiences that allow English Language Learners (ELLs) to develop academic skills and concepts at the same level as other students while acquiring English language proficiency. “The early years are the most critical in setting the foundation that comes after,” explains Hopewell. “What they do in one language informs the other, it is a two way street. What you know in English helps your Spanish and what you know in Spanish helps your English.”

As a former elementary school teacher, Hopewell said, “My most successful students naturally made connections across Spanish and English, but most kids siloed their languages and they could not see that there was a connection. If a student can write a five paragraph essay in Spanish, you can expect them to be able to do the same in English with the proper supports. Part of St. Vrain’s program is to make those connections explicit so that if you were to go into a classroom, it should not only be the teacher that can tell you how the languages are connected, the students should be able to tell you too.”

Connections continue to be instrumental as we navigate through lessons in literacy. Stephen King, a fourth grade teacher at Centennial Elementary cannot talk enough about the connections he builds with his students. King’s road to becoming a teacher was a long one. After spending years in construction, King volunteered in his daughter’s classroom and sat down next to a young boy to help him with an assignment. After sitting with this student for a while, and learning about him, it became clear to King that he wanted to become a teacher.

For King, building connections begins in May as the third graders prepare to transition to fourth grade. Over the summer, King writes his students a monthly letter and includes paper and a self addressed envelope that allows the students to write back to him. Anticipation begins to mount as King waits for his students to write him back. Every day like clockwork King checks his mailbox to see if he has any letters from students. Many students take the time to write him back about what they are doing over the summer, what they are reading and what they like the most. Through these letters King develops a foundation for each student’s writing abilities. He has students reading over the summer and he is able to immediately connect with them on the first day of school. Parents and students alike approach King to tell them about the excitement they felt when they received their letter.

Throughout the year, King posts books he is reading and he changes that as often as possible. “I try to put up all types of reading including comic books, modern literature, magazines and classics. I want them to know that I am reading all the time,” said King.

For many kids and adults, reading is a love it or leave it subject. For King, his goal is to help students find a passion for reading by talking about books and exploring different genres so kids can be exposed to adventure books or a book about sports. He truly focuses on finding the topic that each student enjoys to read about.

Through ReadyGen, St. Vrain’s literacy program, students experience quality literature that every child can be exposed to and it is done as a whole class so even the lowest reader does not feel like a low reader anymore, they feel like they are a part of the class, reading the same book, discussing the same questions, learning about the same characters, and that is the biggest positive King has seen with the program.

Students begin their life and academic career with a foundational awareness of the world around them. Discovering how the color red is spelled and connecting it to a red object in the classroom, then to the word red in a book, and finally writing it in a sentence about a fire truck.

The connections students make to their lessons and the world around them are instrumental. We sometimes hear that when kids are young they are learning to read and then later reading to learn. Really, those things are happening simultaneously and in St. Vrain, students are learning, reading and writing.

By the Numbers: Elementary Literacy

Reading 20 minutes every night equals 1.8 million extra words between kindergarten and sixth grade.
of St. Vrain Valley elementary schools offer a full-day kindergarten program and a high-quality preschool* program. (students in the Frederick feeder attend Spark! Discovery Preschool)
For every $1 invested in early childhood education, the U.S. economy sees a return of $8.60.
By third grade, students who have regular attendance in kindergarten and first grade score an average of 20 percent higher in reading and math than peers who are chronically absent.

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ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications.
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