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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  K-12 education

Spokane Public Schools making elementary literacy a priority as students return to classrooms full-time

The Spokane Public Schools administration building is pictured.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokane Public Schools administration building is pictured. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

At Spokane Public Schools and other districts, teachers and administrators have promised to “meet students where they are” as they begin a new year with in-person learning.

The big question: Where exactly are they?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, standardized tests have largely been dropped, making it difficult for educators to gauge how much learning was lost, especially at the kindergarten level and particularly in foundational literacy and language arts.

“We don’t know yet, and that’s probably the largest concern,” said Karin Thompson, the district’s new director of early learning. “We haven’t been with kids enough, and we don’t know them enough.

“We have a lot to learn,” Thompson said.

There also is a sense of unease that learning loss has been more severe for children who can least afford to fall further behind. Another worry is that fewer parents and guardians are reading – or even modeling it – to their children.

For those reasons and others, the district has launched a new initiative to bolster literacy at the elementary level.

According to district documents, the goal is straightforward: “Establish a long-range plan for equitable access and student development of elementary foundational literacy skills.”

Using Journeys, a language arts program for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, the district hopes to further boost reading foundations and improve comprehension of literature and informational text, as well as speaking and listening.

Teachers are already attempting to do that, but the program is designed to improve their skills and build more commonality from school to school.

The program already has begun. As part of the professional development model for teachers in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade, the district held a two-day training in August.

More sessions will be offered “to dive deeper into specific topics,” the district said.

The initiative is a response to a Washington law passed in 2018, which requires schools to screen children in kindergarten through second grade for signs of dyslexia and to provide reading support for those who need it. The law takes full effect this school year.

Citing the “interrupted and varied” instruction received by students during remote learning and “inability to assess students the way we have,” Thompson said this school year “is the perfect opportunity for this initiative.”

Because of widespread poverty and lack of affordable, quality child care, Spokane Public Schools has been forced to play catch-up with its youngest learners.

In the fall of 2019 – the last year for which statistics are available from the state – only 33% of entering kindergartners in Spokane met standards in all six key areas: cognition, language, literacy, fitness, math and social-emotional maturity.

Overall, among the largest school districts in the state, only Yakima (24.6%) saw worse numbers last year. In Seattle, 67% of incoming kindergartners met the standards. Bellevue and Vancouver were a few percentage points back, while Everett and Tacoma weighed in at 47% and 55%, respectively.

Kindergarten readiness also is significantly higher in Central Valley (64.7%), Cheney (56.3%), East Valley (40.4%) and Mead (48.1%) than in Spokane.

Comparisons for literacy and language arts are about the same. Spokane has done a solid job of narrowing, though not closing, the gap as children move up in grade levels.

For example, 51% of Spokane third graders are reading at grade level. By fifth grade, it’s 55.7%, and by seventh grade, 57.5% are meeting language arts standards.

Not surprisingly, literacy varies widely by school – a major reason why “equitable access” is a major priority in the new initiative.

At Wilson, Hutton and Moran Prairie elementary schools on the South Hill, more than 80% of students are reading and comprehending at or above grade level.

However, at 13 schools in Spokane, fewer than 40% are meeting standards – a challenge to a district that recently approved a wide-ranging equity policy that promises address those unequal opportunities.

It’s reasonable to assume that the gap has widened since the spring of 2020, as families with more resources were better equipped to handle the disruptions of the pandemic

Experts say that parents need to take some initiative at home. According to Scholastic.com, parents should encourage children to read actively.

For example, some experts encourage “dialogue reading” – that is asking your child to participate in the story. Before turning the page, ask your child what she thinks will happen next. You can also ask your child what other way the book could have ended.

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