Working Together To Improve Literacy Among Elementary School Students

Family with two children on floor looking at a book together

When teachers, school staff and parents all use the same techniques and language to work with students on literacy skills, they see positive results. Raising Special Kids joined forces with the Arizona Department of Education to help facilitate the State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG), with the goal of providing professional learning to educators and families to improve the literacy skills of elementary and middle school students with specific learning disabilities.

In 2015, Arizona was one of nine states to receive a SPDG grant, funded by the US Department of Education. States can use SPDG funds for professional development of teachers and providers of early intervention, educational and transitional services to improve results for children with disabilities.
In Arizona, the grant focuses on helping schools improve literacy education among students with any type of learning disability. Students with learning disabilities usually work alongside their typical peers. The Arizona Department of Education approves applications from interested schools, provides schools with professional learning materials and resources and works closely with school and district teams to implement improvements.
Schools participating in the professional learning series have the opportunity to work with their state Parent Training and Information Center, which is Raising Special Kids in Arizona. Raising Special Kids helps host parent information sessions within participating school communities. These sessions include educating parents about their roles in literacy education and encouraging parents to support classroom literacy efforts at home.
“When you implement evidence-based instruction and train teachers, you’ll increase literacy levels,” said Christopher Tiffany, Executive Director of Raising Special Kids. “You’ll see overall school improvement, and parents are a big piece of this.” SPDG sites provided perception surveys to parent to identify their beliefs about inclusive practices for students with specific learning disabilities within their school communities.

In a study of 11,000 students with disabilities, the National Longitudinal Transition Study showed that more time spent in a general education classroom corresponds with numerous positive results. These include higher scores on standardized tests in reading and math, fewer absences from school and fewer referrals for disruptive behavior. These results were independent of students’ disability, severity of disability, gender or socio-economic status.
The SPDG project strives to educate students with specific learning disabilities in general education classroom settings with appropriate support. SPDG tools help to create a partnership among special education teachers, general education teachers, and parents to improve student literacy achievement.
The Arizona Department of Education also examined data to identify common traits of schools where students with learning disabilities improved academically year after year. Two of the traits highlighted were students with disabilities receiving core instruction in the general education classroom and parental involvement. The SPDG project encourages and strengthens these practices among participating schools.

As part of the SPDG project, the Arizona Department of Education set up a professional learning series with six learning modules for participating schools, staff and parents. Teachers complete the first module to understand the program’s vision and how everything connects.
Module 2 covers collaboration between general education and special education teachers and includes a parent meeting to support collaboration among educators and families. “As Raising Special Kids Director Christopher Tiffany shares in the parent meeting, parents truly are their child’s first teacher,” said Stacy Riccio, SPDG Project Coordinator, Exceptional Student Services with the Arizona Department of Education. “Parents can learn more about their role in supporting their child’s learning at home.”

Some schools found innovative methods to increase parent attendance and involvement at these parent meetings. “Parents were used to events like ‘muffins with moms’ and ‘donuts with dads,’ but an event where the parents could learn alongside the teachers was different,” Riccio said. Events included a reading night where children read passages they wrote and received books, or an art show where parents could see their children’s work and then learn more about SPDG.
One school in Parker even hosted a community pig roast to encourage families to attend, and at a turkey trot, participating families received frozen turkeys donated by a community member.
Wallace Elementary School, a third- through fifth-grade school in Parker, also got creative with events and saw increased attendance compared to other events. Their first parent event with Raising Special Kids brought 50 families, said Tamara Page, reading interventionist at the school. Informal surveys taught the team that offering food at these events could help boost attendance, Page said. The school hosted a community resource fair in November 2019 with booths from local businesses that provided resources to families, including the library, the Women and Infant Children (WIC) office, a local youth center, community dance and gymnastics businesses and more. A local realtor donated dinner for the event, and after dinner the school presented information about SPDG to parents. They had 150 people attend, Page noted, and they discussed at-home support for vocabulary studies.
The school’s other plans included an outdoor movie night and a community carnival, which were sidelined due to the COVID outbreak. As their school began remote learning, the team continued to offer SPDG instructional strategies online for parents.

“Many parents told us they were grateful to learn the reading strategies because they could help their children more effectively right away during remote learning,” Page said. Tools included graphic organizers to help learn words and units on phonics and syllables. Beyond reading classes, teachers use similar tools to cover vocabulary in science, math, social studies and elective classes.
Wallace Elementary School expected to return to full in-person learning after spring break in mid-March, and they will continue working on syllables to help students learn to spell difficult words. They also plan to use tools involving questions about reading material that involve a little more thought, including how a character felt about something, to work on reading comprehension. Other SPDG modules include step-by-step processes for collaborative and inclusionary practices. Teachers use the same instructional strategies across the school, in multiple school subjects and in general and special education.
After implementing the SPDG practices at Wallace Elementary School, students in speech therapy showed growth right away, Page said. And students in the school’s English as a second language program also showed dramatic improvement. Of 10 students who were tested using the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment (AZELLA), seven students showed substantial growth. Page credits this to the students learning vocabulary and reading skills through SPDG. This success, combined with the school’s at-risk status, qualified for an additional grant.

While schools postponed AZ Merit testing due to COVID, students at Wallace Elementary School participated in mock AZ Merit testing and students showed growth across the board. “The whole vibe of the school has been different since we started this program,” Page said. “We’re really trying to emphasize the attitude that everyone has the ability for successful learning.”
SPDG will continue to be offered to select Arizona schools, but any educational team can use similar learning tools. “All parents can ask their child’s teachers and schools about the different strategies being used and how they can use these to support their child’s learning at home,” said Tracey Sridharan, Director of Professional Learning and Sustainability, Exceptional Student Services with the Arizona Department of Education. When parents, teachers and staff all collaborate, it’s truly a winning combination for all!

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