Bright Spots: Literacy Support Specialists shine, help students achieve during challenging summer

Being a Literacy Support Specialist (LSS) is challenging under normal circumstances. Throw in a global pandemic and the demands take on an added level of accountability for everyone involved.

Despite the challenges, the teachers who served as Literary Support Specialists for Read Fort Worth’s 2020 Summer Scholars Collaborative made a difference. At summer programs across Fort Worth, LSS’s taught, nurtured and cherished young learners of all backgrounds, instilling a love of reading during a time of great uncertainty.

“Experience overall was good; very positive,” said Stephanie Lukat, LSS for the City of Fort Worth’s summer program at the Greenbriar Community Center. “It was hectic at the start due to a lot of unknowns and adjustments were made to programs, but once it started it was good.

“After an unexpected end to the school year, it was nice to be around students again and form relationships with them. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, having a cap on the program ended up being the best thing because the kids that were there got extensive instruction. It was easier to build relationships with them and get to know them since there weren’t so many.”

IMG 5167Dr. Melissa Roberts Becker agreed that fewer students meant more personalized instruction. The Tarleton State University-Fort Worth education professor also worked for the City at Chisholm Trail and Southwest Community Centers.

In accordance with COVID-19 health protocols, fewer seats were offered this summer so that programs could operate safely.

“Attendance was down for the summer camps city wide, so I would like to see the enrollment increase,” said Dr. Becker said. “With that said, I was able to spend more time with each camper, working one-on-one and supporting their learning.”

A total of 16 LSS’s, nine selected by Read Fort Worth, aided literacy initiatives at four summer programs across town. Though LSS responsibilities varied by program, their underlying mission remained constant: Ensuring students maintain or improve in reading skills going into the upcoming school year.

Dr. Gene Simmons, a test coordinator and data analyst at Carter Park Elementary last year, spent his summer at the Como Community Center. He incorporated literacy into the daily camp schedule through components such as games, music, songs, poems, read-alouds and writing.

“The kids were very receptive to learn the material because it was not your typical type of classroom and the presentation motivated them,” Dr. Simmons said. “The lessons were relevant to them and differentiated according to their reading levels. Therefore, I built trust with the students by finding their specific need. The activities, discussions, questioning, and one-on-one instruction contributed to the trust between the LSS and students.”

As the Summer Scholars Collaborative has evolved in its three years, so have LSS duties. Juan Olmedo worked at two Fort Worth Community Centers this summer – Tri-Ethnic and North Side – and noted the change from supporting literacy instruction in years past to delivering it.

IMG 5164“Both centers grouped participants according to their needs, and I worked for an hour with each group,” said Olmedo, a pre-K teacher at Versia Williams Elementary. “With the younger students I devoted more time for phonological awareness, phonics and fluency, whereas with the older students I worked with comprehension and vocabulary. Also, group leaders were reading and asking children to complete different activities related to literacy.”

Forging a bond and trust with students was critical for each LSS. Julie Iacopi, an Arlington Classics Academy second-grade teacher assigned to the Southside and Worth Heights Community Centers, got to know the kids on a personal level by sharing stories about her background and theirs.

Iacopi made sure to use books appropriate for the various age groups, as well as activities to accompany the story. The program also utilized Raz-Kids, an online tool with interactive eBooks, downloadable books and reading quizzes.

“It has students listen to a story, read books on their level and answer comprehension questions,” she said. “One to three books were read per day depending on their level. Students will be able to access the site from home to continue growing.”

IMG 5231Nancy Adler, a retired teacher from Arlington, worked camps for United Community Centers (UCC). With experience teaching kindergarten through second grade, she naturally connected with kids at UCC’s three locations.

“The students I worked with were receptive and seemed happy to see me when I was there,” Adler said. “I think they liked the one-on-one attention and the reading program that I was helping them use. The reading program was on their level and I think that they felt successful with their reading skills. There were also online incentives for completing their task on the reading program.”

Lukat, a third-grade teacher at Swift Elementary, noticed that student buy-in, at least initially, varied by age group.

“The younger group was more receptive to start with,” she said. “I think they missed having that one-on-one and small group time that didn’t happen the spring semester of school with their teacher. Being able to provide that was a benefit to myself and to the kids. The older group was more resistant due to some struggling readers. As camp progressed, they didn’t want to be left out and did what we were doing.”

Latrina Woods also worked at a pair of community centers – Handley Meadowbrook and Eugene McCray. The fifth-grade teacher Faith Family Academy was impressed by the students willingness to incorporate reading into their daily routines. She focused on the seven aspects of phonemic awareness, as well as phonics, fluency, oral language development, vocabulary development, comprehension and writing.

“They caught on quickly,” Woods said. “I built their trust by allowing them to read even if they did not know how to read certain words.”

LSS2020 2 scaled e1596717229598Read Fort Worth and program partners co-created a toolkit of research-validated resources to incorporate literacy instruction into each day of camp. The programs also tracked the reading progress of Fort Worth ISD students from K-3rd grade using tools such as Fountas & Pinnell Literacy and Reading A-Z online programs.

Richard J. Wilson Elementary kindergarten teacher Kaley Evrard worked the RD Evans and Highland Hills Community Centers. Using Fountas & Pinnell’s Where-to-Start Word Test assessment, students’ reading levels were established.

“There was progress to be seen, as well as just being able to see that students reading levels were maintained during summer,” Evrard said.

“I saw progress in the increase of reading skills through informal observations and conversations with the campers,” Dr. Becker added. “I also tracked data through running records I conducted as well as running records completed within Raz-Kids.”

Considering the challenges due to COVID-19 health concerns, Evrard felt programs took more of a day-by-day approach. She does believe the literacy component could be integrated into other spaces throughout the year, and as other LSS’s suggested, identifying kids that need extra attention is critical.

IMG 5170 rotated“I feel like in the future it would be great if this type of activity was done not just during community camps, but also in summer care centers,” Evrard said. “I think it would be great to incorporate into any summer setting where kids are whether it is at their daycare or short time periods at the public library, as well as maybe having it happening on weekends during the school year.”

Alder came away impressed by structure within United Community Centers.

“I feel that the UCC campuses have strong academic leadership,” Adler said. “The teachers and instructors I met were either current teachers or retired teachers that had a wealth of knowledge on how to teach reading and language arts. The programs I saw them using were very structured with pre- and post-assessments to see areas of strength and weaknesses to know the avenue of instruction needed. I think the UCC program should be an example for other summer programs.”

Chelsea Sheffield, a second-grade teacher at Morningside Elementary, found being part of the City’s summer program valuable on multiple levels.

“This was a humbling and rewarding experience to teach in a mobile setting while social distancing,” she said. “I understand how critical it is for teachers to have personal contact and more engagement with students to maintain momentum and rigor. It was like learning to teach again due to pandemic.”

Story by Art Garcia