A New Chapter in Early Literacy for Shorewood Schools

Cate Sebastian, Atwater Reading Intervention Specialist, sat down with SEED to discuss the importance of early literacy, “There’s more attention being paid to the science of reading. If you struggle to read it has lifelong impacts. It will impact every area of a child’s life.” Research indicates that reading habits have more influence on educational attainment than socio-economic status or having a parent with a degree. (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2002, and Sullivan & Brown, 2013, London: Institute of Education). If you’ve never had the pleasure of talking with Cate, then you probably don’t know just how passionate she is about literacy. You may also be unaware of how much she has had a hand in transforming the outlook for so many young readers in the Shorewood School District, not just with intervention, but through collaboration, teacher support, and phonics advocacy. Cate has been working as a reading intervention specialist with our district for the past 6 years, and over the past 3 she has worked beyond Atwater to implement some very positive changes within our district, with the help of funds from SEED and the support of teachers and our director of curriculum. 

Pictured Above: Cate Sebastian, Atwater Reading Speacialist; Right: Cate receives recognition from Carroll University with an Early Career Leader award in April of 2019

In the spring of 2020, SEED awarded $20,000 to fund a District grant application that outlined gaps in student “decoding” skills using knowledge of letter sounds and relationships to correctly pronounce written wordsand specific interventions to address this need: a phonics intervention curriculum (95% Group Phonics Intervention), as well as a two-day training for intervention teachers. The grant application had been submitted by district reading specialists Cate Sebastian and Katy Musuka, former Lake Bluff Reading Specialist.  “The importance for students to have a solid foundation in the early grades is what really motivated us,” explained Cate.

Within the first months of using this new intervention curriculum, both specialists began to see significant improvement in decoding skills amongst their students, and an increase in the number of students graduating out of reading intervention services. Students responded to this new curriculum very quickly, which led staff to believe that ALL students needed exposure to systematic and explicit reading instruction, across both elementary schools, in their primary classrooms, or what is called “tier 1” instruction. Sam Coleman, previous Director of Curriculum and Instruction was supportive and instrumental in implementing a new pilot. “When I learned about this SEED Grant, I knew this couldn’t be only for intervention. It had to transfer to the classroom.” 

The Shorewood School District was sure it wanted to have alignment between what was happening in intervention and what was happening in the classroom. Prior to 2021, Atwater and Lake Bluff did not have the same resources, nor sequence of scope and skills in the area of phonics. Teachers would either bring over their reading curriculums from prior schools, purchase them at conferences or elsewhere, but it was piecemeal and not uniform between the elementary schools. With the expertise of Cate and Katy, SSD chose two phonics programs to pilot among elementary teachers in grades K5-3, ensuring all students have the same access to these materials and have a curriculum that pairs seamlessly with the intervention curriculum and from grade to grade. These two pilot programs are “95% Group-Core 95” and “From Phonics to Reading.” With the input of teachers, students, and data, one of the two pilots is being selected to be implemented universally in all K5-3rd grade classrooms across both elementary schools for the 2023-24 school year.

Current Director of Teaching and Learning, Mike Joynt, shared the results of the latest Forward Exam, which looks at the progress of students from one year to the next. When looking at the results from the elementary schools for the 21-22 school year, there was a marked improvement from the 20-21 school year. At the elementary level, 67% of students were testing at the “proficient/advanced” level in English Language Arts, which was a 5% increase from the previous year. “We saw growth across all grade levels and across all categories – race, socioeconomic status, students labeled with disabilities – all saw growth that was above what was typical for students in Reading and Math,” Mike proudly stated. To be transparent, the intermediate school did not show the same improvement on this year’s Forward Exam, and Mike had this to say, “This pilot targeted early grade levels and we’re seeing positive growth from that. Research has shown that if you meet the needs of kids in earlier grades it pays off later.” He added that the data helps to inform their decisions. 

Mike Joynt, Director of Teaching and Learning for SSD

The SEED Foundation continued its support of early literacy curriculum development through a Spring 2022 contribution of $27,000, thus extending the current phonics pilot program and expanding the resources and training for teachers up to grade 8. With these funds the district was able to purchase $10k in consumables such as workbooks for students in grades K5-3, $5k for decodable texts for K4-2 students, and also purchase a supplement for grades 6-8 called Patterns of Power, which focuses on sentence structure and grammar. In addition to this, SSD hosted a summer group for teachers, led by Cate Sebastian, with one week for teachers in grades K4-2, and another week for teachers in grades 3-8. Cate prefaced those work groups by posing the question, “What are your hopes and dreams for students in your grade level?” The teachers took a holistic look at literacy within our schools, asking tough but important questions and taking a look at a students’ literacy trajectory. Over 20 teachers across the 3 schools grades K4-8 were able to attend the work group, laying a foundation for the work that is currently being done across our schools to identify priority standards and create a systemic approach to addressing the needs of students in the area of literacy. 

Taking a look ahead, there is great work being done in grades 4-8 to bring alignment and improve the gains being made within the development of literacy with the SSD. Cate explained that by grade 4 students have typically moved on from acquiring foundational decoding skills and have developed into fluent readers that are able to grapple with more complex texts. As mentioned above, the Patterns of Power Program was purchased for grades 7 & 8 this year; the same resource was already being utilized by some teachers in the upper elementary grades.  “The SIS teachers really enjoyed learning how students learned in our elementary schools and what knowledge they were coming to SIS with,” Mike said in reference to the work group and ongoing training. Another advantage is that extending this to grades 7-8 allows students to come to the Intermediate School with a sense of familiarity to the reading curriculum. “We wanted something consistent as students transitioned to SIS so they could hit the ground running,” Cate explained.

As Dr. Seuss put it “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” It is the hope of not just our reading specialists, but our entire district, that our students go on from SSD to do and see many amazing things. We want success for our students, and that foundation starts with reading and early literacy, which impacts every area of a student’s life. This new layered approach to literacy development within Shorewood Schools will have a ripple effect in every subject area, and goes beyond that to have an impact on the possibilities for that student’s future. Over the past 2 years, SEED donors gave a total of $47k to improve literacy in our district, impacting students from K4 to 8th grade! We want to thank our donors whose shared passion for educating our youth has contributed to district advancements in literacy. Please continue supporting this important work by donating to SEED today:

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