LUCI WELDON/The Warren Record

Warren County Board of Education members Linda Byrd, left, and Victoria Lehman listen to local students talk about a favorite book. Students pictured are, from the left, Daphne Steffens of Mariam Boyd Elementary School, Noah Wilker of Northside K-8 School, Kenan Alashmali and Amaris Yancey of South Warren Elementary School, and Chenea Lamber of Vaughan Elementary School.

Warren County Schools formally introduced its literacy project during last year’s joint meeting of the board of education and board of county commissioners. Today, school system officials believe the initiative shows signs of success through higher reading scores on state tests and increased student excitement about reading.


The need for the literacy project

During this year’s joint meeting of the two boards on May 7, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ray Spain said that the literacy project was developed because Warren County students, like many of their counterparts across the state, were struggling with reading. 

According to state test score data presented during the meeting, the percentage of students scoring at grade level or higher (proficient) during the 2012-13 school year ranged from 24.2 percent for grade five to 42.9 percent for English II. The highest proficiency rate among students below high school was in grade three, with a proficiency rate of 29.8.

To establish a foundation of lifelong reading, Warren County Schools focused its literacy project on the youngest readers, students in kindergarten through grade six.

“Nothing is more important than teaching our children to read and love to read,” Spain said.


Developing a plan

The literacy project began with the formation of a literacy planning team consisting of principals and teachers at the kindergarten through sixth-grade level, and representatives from school system administration. Warren County Schools partnered with Dr. Caitlyn Ryan, literacy consultant with East Carolina University in Greenville, to facilitate discussion.

During the 2016-17 school year, the team researched instructional approaches and practices they believed would best help local students, and drafted a mission and philosophies that would drive the literacy initiatives. The school system budgeted $150,000 for that fiscal year to establish the literacy project. In 2017-18, the literacy team defined how literacy instruction should look in Warren County Schools.

The Warren County team was inspired by the philosophies and recommendations outlined in “Every Child, Every Day,” a report written by Dr. Richardson L. Allington, professor of Education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and Rachael E. Gabriel, associate professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Their findings appeared in the March 2012 edition of Educational Leadership magazine published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum made up of school system superintendents, principals, teachers and advocates from more than 120 countries.

Warren County Schools took into consideration recommendations by Allington and Gabriel that children should complete the following six actions every day: read something of their choice, read accurately, read something they understand, write about something meaningful to them, talk to their peers about reading and writing, and listen to a fluent adult read.


The literacy project today

Chelsa Jennings, school system director of curriculum and instruction, reported that the literacy project is moving ahead at full force in classrooms across the county.

She said that a major component of the project involved the development of classroom libraries, a collection of 25-30 books in each kindergarten through sixth-grade classroom. 

From this library, students select books that they want to read, Jennings added. Time is devoted each day to reading, writing and other activities to increase reading skills so that boys and girls will be able to read increasingly difficult texts and books.

Jennings added that the students talk to their classmates and adults about what they read, conduct writing exercises on a regular basis and listen to adults read to them.

Ryan said that each day, teachers ask themselves if children are reading more in the classroom and if they enjoy reading more. If students do not enjoy reading, teachers consider what they can do to make reading more enjoyable.

Jennings reported that 2017-18 test scores show that the literacy project is working. According to data from 2017-18 state test results, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level ranged from 35.9 percent in grade eight to 53.2 percent in grade four. Other grades show a reading proficiency level of at least 45.9.

Jennings said that much improvement is needed, but local educators believe that the literacy project will continue to improve students’ reading skills, and, as a result, proficiency levels on state tests.


The literacy project in action

During last week’s meeting, local students in elementary and middle grades discussed favorite books with members of the board of education and county commissioners. After talking with the students, board members reported what they learned.

The board members concluded that local students love to read from observances like the following: students like to imagine themselves as book characters and believe that books allow them to travel around the world through their imaginations, reading enables them to solve problems, books inspire them to speak out about what is important to them, and reading helps them to learn about sentence structure and how to spell words. The adults learned that, most importantly, the students enjoyed reading because it allows them to learn about things they knew nothing about.


Preparing children for the future

Spain said that he has been impressed to watch how teachers work with their students to improve their reading skills.

“The most important thing you can do is to work with children when they are young (to build) excitement in reading,” he said.

The superintendent is excited that the literacy project will help Warren County students reach their potential.

“The students here are as smart and bright as anyone anywhere. You must give them opportunity,” Spain said. “Reading is the key to being successful in school.”