“Our kids do not get a “do over”. They only get one first grade year… We must ask ourselves – what are the moral issues of our time? In my mind, it’s our failure to teach all kids to read,” stated Superintendent Megan Van Fossan, who is transforming one of the most challenged school districts in Pennsylvania through overcoming systemic barriers. EarlyBird Education recently had the opportunity to learn more about systems-based leadership using implementation science in a Lunch and Lead webinar with Ms. Van Fossan, the Superintendent of Sto-Rox School District.
The district, located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, faces severe financial and operational challenges which led to the implementation of a Pennsylvania Department of Education mandated financial recovery plan.
Van Fossan shared that the work is hard and emotional because they are asking everyone in the system to do the work of reading improvement differently. “We absolutely know how to do this work better. Learning to read should not and can not depend on how much money you have or the zip code where you live, or the school where you attend. Using the moral failures of the past and raising the antenna is one way our children will have a better tomorrow,” stated Van Fossan.
“Our kids do not get a “do over”. They only get one first grade year… We must ask ourselves – what are the moral issues of our time? In my mind, it’s our failure to teach all kids to read.”
Van Fossan shared, “At the heart of the issues were the missed opportunities to support and address the needs of our students and families. There was significant evidence that the design of our systems needed to be reexamined so that our kids could thrive. Systemic change is key to long term sustainable change.” The overhaul started with embracing high-quality research to ensure they provide focused resources on cradle-to-career services to close opportunity gaps and create pathways to educational achievement and economic mobility.
Van Fossan explained how public policy has failed the students at Sto-Rox. She pointed out that the intellectual work cannot be separated from the political work. To change the landscape, they had to address reading acquisition by thinking it all the way through from its current plan and shifting it to today’s reality.
The overhaul started with a call to action through urging all stakeholders into citizen action. Van Fossan shared, “Our strength is working together to build a better tomorrow for the children we serve. When I share our important work on school improvement, I often say you can’t build a house on sand and think it will withstand the test of time. We have to have a sense that our fate and the fate of our children are reasonably linked. If we don’t have that sense, there is very little likelihood of mutual concessions to meet the needs of students where they can grow their skills.”
So, what does it take to lay a rock, solid foundation? Van Fossan’s experience in collaborating with key leaders through learning, discussing, and unpacking critical elements of reading acquisition led her to the implementation science. They based their work on the research and set out to redesign their systems to be responsive for early learners.
Their first step involved a reading task force, which consisted of experts in the science of reading. She leveraged this group to brainstorm implementation concerns, pointing out that public policy is failing kids across the nation. She knew that she had to listen to the people who actually do the challenging work and identify what has worked and has not. EarlyBird was one of these thought-partners. This included being clear on the design and details of program financing. Districts have received the ESSER funds, and they must consider the long-term planning and financing of good reading programs.
Another piece of this puzzle was serving teachers and building administrators. Van Fossan pointed out how critical it is to value the voice of the people who do the work every day. School Board and community members were also engaged through designing communication strategies to build awareness.
Human centered design is being used to enhance effectiveness, improve human wellbeing, user satisfaction, accessibility, and sustainability. Van Fossan highlighted the work of Dr. Todd Rose, professor from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “He has helped educational practitioners understand the importance of predictable variability of the students we serve. If we did a learning profile on a classroom of thirty 1st grade students, we would see not one student has the same learning profile. This means we have a moral and ethical obligation to fill the tool bag of our teachers with lots of strategies to design appropriate instruction to meet the needs of every student in every classroom,” stated Van Fossan.
They harnessed Harvard’s Data Wise Improvement Process to identify learner centered problems, which led to their problems of practice. They made significant investments in professional learning. “The reality is our teachers traditionally or typically do not have good instructional strategies in the area of reading… a key component of our school reform improvement efforts is bringing the best professional learning to our teachers. We have been fortunate to partner with the AIM Institute,” stated Van Fossan. All teachers of reading in grades K to 12 are participating in robust professional learning at Sto-Rox because teacher quality and school leadership are the most crucial factors in raising student achievement.
“If we did a learning profile on a classroom of thirty 1st grade students, we would see not one student has the same learning profile. This means we have a moral and ethical obligation to fill the tool bag of our teachers with lots of strategies to design appropriate instruction to meet the needs of every student in every classroom.”
This professional learning was coupled with planning for collaborative work. A list of priorities was developed, and these priorities drove scheduling for all students, including uninterrupted time for students to focus on reading. In addition, every professional staff member had 45 minutes built into their day to engage in a professional learning community.
The next building block was unpacking the data available to the educators to ensure their instructional design better meets the needs of the students they serve. Van Fossan shared, “We know teachers have to know what students know and are able to do. EarlyBird has given our kindergarten and first grade teachers the opportunity to design their instruction based on clear and most importantly, meaningful data. Moreover, EarlyBird provides evidence-based strategies, which have eliminated the phenomena of Pinterest and “Teachers Pay Teachers” shopping for readymade programs and ideas. It is also helping us move away from the reliance on teacher packets.”
EarlyBird is grateful to be a valued partner of the Sto-Rox District.