Dowagiac schools take on new literacy program

DOWAGIAC — Last week, Sister Lakes Elementary School students sat at a line of computers looking at a set of emoji — a smiley face, a sad face and a face that wasn’t so sure.

Standing in front of the students wearing a yellow sweater was Becky Stauffer, a literacy facilitator. She told the students to choose an emoji, adding that there were no wrong answers.

“Pick the one that describes how you feel about reading at school,” she told the students.

The exercise was part of the High Impact Leadership program, a new literacy enhancement project rolled out this year at Sister Lakes and Justus Gage elementary schools.

The project is grant supported program designed to support schools in achieving their vision and goals related to literacy, according to its website. The work is based on two researchers from Western Michigan University, Dr. Patricia Reeves and Dr. Jianping Shen. The project helps with implementing literacy essentials through an on-site facilitator to support the school, leadership summits or workshops for principals and teachers, as well as monetary support.

Advantages to the program include helping the school recognize strengths and growth opportunities, helping develop teacher leaders, monitoring school progress and aiding in connecting the school to research supported strategies, according to HIL materials.

“We are here to help establish leadership systems to help [the schools] look at literacy in the classroom, in their building and just overall how to improve literacy,” said Stauffer, who visits the Sister Lakes, Justus Gage and Marcellus elementary schools once a week as a HIL program facilitator. “The overall goal is to increase student reading and also increase leadership and shared leadership in the building. … Literacy is in a crisis in Michigan, and there is so much on our schools and our teachers. Any support we give them will be a benefit.”

Last week’s emoji exercise was part of a survey to collect baseline data about how Dowagiac Union Schools children currently feel about reading. One of the goals of the project currently is to help students to begin to think about literacy and to gain positive feels toward reading, Stauffer said.

“We are still gathering that baseline,” she said. “In January, we will be gathering that data … because the school has intervention time, and we have been targeting that toward what the students need, whether it is text analysis or fluency or it’s word study. That’s where we are having them look at their data and focus their instruction.”

One-hundred-fifty-two schools are taking part in the HIL project, which will provide a facilitator for nearly two years to provide literacy guidance and tools to improve literacy once the facilitators leave. Sister Lakes Elementary and Justus Gage Elementary are two of 76 schools included in the first run of the project.

Now in the third month of the project at Sister Lakes and Justus Gage, Stauffer said the project is going well and she is optimistic that it will be successful at improving literacy at Dowagiac elementary schools.

Sister Lakes Elementary School Principal Mike Campbell said he was excited about the HIL program and that he thinks it will benefit students.

“This is giving us some new strategies to impact literacy, and I think it is going to broaden our knowledge so that we can carry it through after [HIL facilitators] are gone,” he said. “I hope that it is going help us analyze our data so that we can continue to see students make gains in literacy. … The foundation to literacy begins when [children] are young. We are thrilled to work with the HIL project on this and are looking forward to spending the next couple of years with them.”

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