LA Unified expands early literacy program

June 11, 2021

After months of distance learning, literacy assessments at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year showed faltering reading levels among Los Angeles Unified’s youngest students. But a new program aims to change that. 

Primary Promise was launched as a pilot program this past August to boost early literacy rates among young students attending L.A. Unified schools. According to the school district, reading scores have improved among all students who have joined, prompting a massive expansion of the program. What began as a pilot with 2,500 students will become a program with 14,000 students by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, and the district intends to continue growing the program. 

Across the state, other school districts have also implemented early literacy programs into their summer programming and their year-round curriculums. Kindergarten through second grade students in the Bay Area’s Alameda Unified, for example, are part of a reading program that uses whole-class, small group and individual instruction, in addition to assessments, to improve reading skills. In San Diego Unified, students with dyslexia and specific learning disabilities have the option to join a program that offers specialized instruction in reading. And in Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento, students can take part in literacy camps over the summer.

Few programs, however, have expanded as widely and quickly as L.A. Unified’s program.

One of the first to join the pilot was 7-year-old Allison Franco Gutierrez. During the early weeks of the pandemic, her mother, Jazmin Gutierrez, saw how her daughter struggled to keep up during reading time with her first grade class at Gulf Avenue Elementary. 

Each of her three children, ages 7 to 17, learn differently, Jazmin Gutierrez said, and the pandemic negatively impacted all of her children’s learning experiences. But it seemed to be impacting Allison more acutely.

“She’s smart, but the pandemic didn’t help at all. Allison is my youngest and the one who worried me most because she was falling a bit behind,” Gutierrez said in Spanish, noting that there was a clear difference between Allison’s reading levels and her siblings’ reading levels at the same age.

Allison’s teacher, Felicia Cisneros, also noticed and suggested she enroll in Primary Promise. Gutierrez agreed to have her daughter join the pilot in August.

At the time, Allison was reading about nine words per minute, Cisneros said. Less than two semesters later, she is reading between 42 and 45 words per minute.

After other students in Primary Promise showed improvement in their reading levels, L.A. Unified decided to expand the program. 

The program’s strategy is to work in small groups while addressing each child’s individual needs. Students meet daily for 30 minutes in groups of three to five for 10 weeks. They share a group reading goal, but each student also receives the support they need depending on their personal reading level. The district either assigns a reading teacher to each group or the students’ classroom teacher is trained to provide small group reading support. Each classroom teacher who leads a group is assigned an instructional coach for support. 

Regardless of who leads each small group, teachers regularly track each student’s progress on a monitoring tool and meet weekly with other Primary Promise staff to compare teaching strategies, assess the data, and adjust, as needed, in helping their students meet a previously decided reading goal. 

That’s how Cisneros came to be part of Primary Promise. She attended a training session that introduced her to the program and was then assigned an instructional coach who supported her as she helped her students, like Allison, learn how to blend words, read faster and become excited about reading. 

“What I really liked was that it was a constant. We met every week; we shared our strategies. That’s something we don’t get the opportunity to do often,” said Cisneros, who has been a teacher for seven years. “And then you hear the other strategies from your fellow colleagues and you start collaborating.” 

The idea for Primary Promise started long before the pandemic, but the program came together in time to help L.A. Unified’s youngest students as they dealt with the repercussions of a sudden shift to distance learning during the pandemic, said Superintendent Austin Beutner in an interview with EdSource.

The district’s data showed the pandemic’s impact on literacy: At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, about 46% of first-grade students were reading at or above grade level, an 11-point drop from the previous year. 

“To put this in context, about 4,500 fewer first grade students were reading at grade level at the beginning of this school year compared to the students in first grade last year,” Beutner said in a statement earlier this year. 

Every two weeks, students in Primary Promise take a literacy assessment called DIBELS, which stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skill, so their teachers can monitor their progress. It’s not an assessment for the sake of test-taking, Beutner said. Rather, he said, it’s “for the purpose of taking five or 10 minutes, understanding what a particular student’s needs were or are so that they can get help for that.” 

L.A. Unified has used that same literacy assessment for years; the difference now is the way it’s being utilized. 

“What’s different is really this teamwork,” said Alma Kimura, administrator of instruction for L.A. Unified. “We’ve had these tools available for our teachers for a while. It’s not something new to them. They’ve all been trained on how to use the tools.” 

She said the program is based on “a lot of things coming together. Superintendent Buetner’s vision of the Primary Promise, putting all these pieces in place, putting these coaches and coordinators at school sites, providing the funding to support this. It all came together to really create a real focus, that microscopic lens on what we really need for our youngest learners and our most vulnerable populations of students.”

Education experts have long hailed early literacy skills as foundational to student success, but literacy rates have faltered nationwide over the past year. Much of the loss is seen among students in kindergarten and first grade, and more specifically among Black and Latino students in those grades. 

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, a national study showed that a significantly increased number of kindergarten and first grade students were at risk of not learning how to read compared with the previous school year. There was a 68% increase in the percentage of kindergarten students and a 65% in the percentage of first grade students, according to the national study by Amplify Education, the organization behind the DIBELS assessment. 

“Learning is cumulative,” Beutner said in the interview with EdSource. “If you get early literacy right, so many other things fall into place. Even early math is built on early literacy. You can’t solve a math problem if you can’t read the problem.”

During one of the weekly check-ins over the past year, Cisneros’ students didn’t meet their reading goals. She initially thought that the shift in the data meant her strategies were not working for her students, but her instructional coach reminded her that the students’ lives were changing as they transitioned back into the classroom and that their reading had vastly improved during previous weeks.

It was that type of bigger-picture reminder that helped Cisneros understand that her teaching strategies were working, even during the weeks when the data didn’t reflect her students’ reading improvements. As soon as they settled into their new school routines, the data showed that students continued improving their reading skills, she said.

Based on that long-term improvement, the program is expanding not only districtwide but within Cisneros’ school. Gulf Avenue Elementary first trained three first grade teachers in the Primary Promise model. Now, all five of its first grade teachers have been trained, in addition to a few third grade teachers. 

“This type of work can be replicated. The whole idea of having teachers meet and discuss data on a frequent basis and have those conversations around — where are we, what are some areas of opportunity, what are our strengths — that’s important,” said Jose Soto, principal of Gulf Avenue, which is located in Wilmington, near Long Beach. 

For now, Allison is reaping the benefits of Primary Promise. Her mother noted that a change occurred when Allison learned how to group words together. Allison now picks out books to read in the evening, and Gutierrez even joked about needing to keep her phone away now that her daughter can read her text messages. 

“It’s like when you’re eating a fruit and you love the taste so much that you want more and more,” Gutierrez said. “That’s what it’s like when she grabs a book.”

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