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By rethinking how reading is taught, Bay Area schools hope to boost overall literacy

William Patterson hosts an online tutoring session for a dyslexic student from his apartment in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 3 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In the wake of a pandemic that put so many students behind, public schools throughout the Bay Area hope that rethinking literacy will regain academic outcomes.

The movement to change the way kids learn to read goes back decades, but Covid closures that erased years of test gains made it a national focus.

Broadly speaking, several districts are moving away from the pedagogy by education professor Lucy Calkins that focuses on engaging material and self-discovery in favor of an approach centered on phonics and sounding out words. 

In San Francisco, a May audit found that while reading lessons were culturally relevant, they didn’t emphasize foundational skills or let students practice. 

A team of educators, literacy interventionists, and community members is reviewing curriculum, which will be whittled down to two pilots for San Francisco Unified School District and then adopt one as curriculum by 2024.

Oakland is headed in that direction, too, as school districts throughout the Bay Area and across the country revise literacy goals—some that already seem to be paying off. 

When Palo Alto public schools adopted a new literacy program in 2021, the results were immediate and promising, with jumps in reading scores that mostly met its initial targets. Oakland dropped the Calkins curriculum in 2021, and San Ramon took a similar tack as part of a five-year rollout. 

Educators have welcomed the change, saying it’s more inclusive and more conducive to kids in special education. Lisa Levin, who serves on SFUSD’s curriculum and language arts team, acknowledged the May audit underscores the need for an approach that’s more structured, sequential and adheres to national standards.

“We all want to have proficient readers. We all want kids to learn to read and be joyful in their literary lives,” Levin said. “This process that we are going through also really supports our desire for cohesion.”

Rebecca Fedorko, a former SFUSD special education teacher, says her students start to hit roadblocks in reading by around first grade under San Francisco’s current curriculum.

“I had a kid in tears because he couldn’t spell the word because no one taught him,” she said. “These kids internalize it. They don’t have anything cognitively wrong with them; they just haven’t been taught the right way. It’s hard not to get angry at the system.”

SFUSD said that changing the way kids learn to read very well may impact which students need special education.

Reading intervention that reaches kids sooner and stresses foundational skills “will likely decrease the number of students who will need special education services,” the district added.

“Struggling readers have a hard time keeping up and can sometimes be referred to special education for intervention,” SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick told The Standard. “[That] puts the problem with the child when, in fact, the system may be failing them.“

William Patterson hosts an online tutoring session for a dyslexic student from his apartment in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 3 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As it stands, however, parents of students with dyslexia say it’s hard to get literacy interventions from SFUSD. As part of the state’s push to better serve dyslexic students, there’s an incoming tool that could help.

Researchers from the University of California San Francisco’s Dyslexia Center is testing a digital screener for early signs of dyslexia. The pilot is evaluating students at Starr King, Longfellow and Cleveland elementary schools in SFUSD as well as Mission Dolores Academy and New School San Francisco. 

The goal is to deploy the tool to all California public schools by 2023

“Literacy is a social determinant of health,” said Dr. Phaedra Bell, the center’s director of school and community engagement. “We would love to know where every learner is on that spectrum as soon as possible. Most of the kids on that spectrum will be able to benefit a ton from all kinds of early intervention.”

Despite a sense of hope around the changing curriculum, a sense of skepticism persists around providing interventions and services needed. 

William Patterson, a former SFUSD special ed teacher who tutors dyslexic students, was frustrated by the lack of early assessments and interventions for young students with signs of the learning disorder. He now sits on the literacy curriculum review team and is waiting to see what shift ultimately happens.

“I think we’re still getting close to the point where every school district is going to do that, it’s going to be a legal requirement and won’t get a second thought,” Patterson said. “How that translates to services remains to be seen.”

Meanwhile, there are some concerns about whether too much emphasis on phonics could impede comprehension—particularly for bilingual children. The National Committee on Effective Literacy is collecting survey responses to study the impact of “science of reading” initiatives on dual language programs. 

“It’s definitely been a nationwide issue,” said Kathy Futterman, a professor at California State University East Bay, who specializes in learning disabilities. “We’re not saying throw away rich literature and comprehension and vocabulary. For students not struggling, being taught a structured literacy approach, it will only enhance their skills overall.”

San Francisco’s Board of Education set new goals to raise reading proficiency among Black and Pacific Islander students in kindergarten and first grade by 2024. Superintendent Matt Wayne said in an email last week that the district anticipates sharing a draft plan in March, according to the San Francisco Parent Coalition.

Havah Kelley—who serves on SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education and on the reading review team—said it’s important for SFUSD’s curriculum to align with its interventions. Her sixth-grader is a case in point, she said: Like many special education students, he struggles with dyslexia even after years of dedicated staff offering additional support.

As a single, low-income parent who can’t afford tutoring, she “feels a profound sense of sadness” around how her son struggles under the current system. That’s why she’s hopeful of the changes SFUSD is pursuing. 

“Their goal and their vision, it’s spot on,” Kelley said. “But if you’re not implementing it correctly, it won’t matter. For me, relying on the public school system is my only option. Kids like my son, they’re not going to reach their fullest potential if that continues.”