education Blog

Mission Possible: Prepare Young Learners for Reading Success

Top photo: When children enter kindergarten with the skills and enthusiasm to learn, they are better prepared to succeed in school and in life. Photo credit: Stephanie Secrest.

We are shouting from the mountain tops about the progress of kindergarten children at Cox Academy, where 80% of kindergarteners are on track for later reading success. Cox Academy is a member of Education for Change, a charter management organization that includes five Oakland elementary schools.

Education for Change, Dana Cilono

Dana Cilono, Education for Change Director of Early Childhood Education

This progress was possible when, after a successful two year engagement to support Education for Change’s transitional kindergarten program, the Rainin Foundation further invested in early elementary students and teachers. Our $500,000 grant supports transitional kindergarten through first grade instruction. These results are so promising that Education for Change’s work is becoming a model for elementary literacy instruction.

Today, I talk with Director of Early Childhood Education, Dana Cilono about Education for Change’s work, dreams, and results.

As the Director of Early Childhood Education, what’s your dream for this work?

Dana: We noticed a trend across our sites that the majority of children were not kindergarten ready and not meeting third grade reading proficiency goals. Specifically, the range of our kindergarten children’s experience varied, and their teachers felt the pressure of getting kids kindergarten ready and ready for first grade. We wondered how we could help kids reach goals and not fall behind. The question became: What would it take to give children the strongest and happiest start in kindergarten?

With the Rainin Foundation grant, we’ve focused our efforts on transitional kindergarten through first grade. Our objectives: 1) implement SEEDS of Learning in our transitional kindergarten classrooms, with the goal to have 75% of these students at or above end-of-year targets on our kindergarten readiness indicators, and 2) achieve grade level reading proficiency by third grade.

SEEDS of Learning, Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Oakland

SEEDS of Learning is an evidence-based professional development program that provides educators and families with strategies to build social, emotional, language and literacy skills in young children. Learn more

What’s it like for a child to arrive unprepared and struggle to catch up?

Dana: We had a student who entered kindergarten without any preschool or transitional kindergarten experience. Right away, it was clear that she was not ready for school. She struggled with following directions. She resisted learning activities because she didn’t have the skills to do them. And she relied a lot on the teacher for emotional support. School was very difficult for her. I’d often come in and see her sitting next to the teacher. By contrast, another student who had built foundational academic and social-emotional skills in transitional kindergarten arrived confident and ahead of the curve on predictive literacy skills. She was able to enjoy and excel in kindergarten.

What would you like us to know about Cox Academy?

“Teachers continue to host family workshops with a remarkable 98% of families participating”

Dana: I taught kindergarten and transitional kindergarten at Cox before becoming a literacy coach and now Director. Cox is a diverse place, we have high percentages of children with unique needs, and like many schools near us in East Oakland, our children face a unique set of challenges. Families at Cox are invested and we work to ensure their perspectives are heard and included through site councils and surveys.

We have been so impressed with the level of family engagement. For example, the Rainin Foundation funded Springboard Collaborative, a five-week summer reading program that included home visits and workshops for families to learn how to support reading at home. The experience was so positive, that teachers continue to host these workshops with a remarkable 98% of families participating. And, I’ve seen stronger relationships between parents, caregivers and teachers develop.

Where did you start the year and what have you seen so far?

Dana: We have 100 kindergarteners at Cox and 400 across our five schools. The 37 Cox kindergarteners who were part of our SEEDS transitional kindergarten classrooms were ready for school, but the others needed more support. We built on the success of the SEEDS transitional kindergarten tutor model and used a portion of our grant funding to hire kindergarten aides. We recruited these aides from our families, and almost all are parents.

“The 37 Cox Academy kindergarteners who were part of our SEEDS transitional kindergarten classrooms were ready for school.”

This year, with kindergarten aides well trained in SEEDS instructional strategies, our kindergarten teachers could intentionally target early reading behaviors in ways they couldn’t before. Our kindergarten aides form small groups with children needing additional support in foundational literacy skills identified by the data. Our students are performing well on phonemic awareness and phonic skills, which means the trained aides are as impactful as teachers! As a result, our reading assessment data is much more positive. We are building those essential decoding skills and overall reading skills are accelerating.

What have you learned & do you see any trends?

Dana Cilono, SEEDS of Learning, PLC, Professional Learning Community

Dana Cilono presenting at a professional learning community workshop.

Dana: We discovered that the preschool and transitional kindergarten SEEDs framework also benefits kindergartners. Because some students are still not prepared, the coaching team is creating a model for kindergarten level interventions. We have learned so much about building a professional learning community and how to support peer learning through SEEDS. As for trends, kids are exceeding our goals by winter—and that is thrilling to see.

What would you tell others hoping to achieve similar results so quickly?

Dana: Parent aides trained in evidence-based instructional practices can make all the difference to student outcomes. They help children reach goals and ensure teachers can spend more time with children. We are effective because of the strength of our teachers, well trained aides, a terrific site-based coach, and leaders who have a clear vision that this work is a priority. We wouldn’t be succeeding if any one of these elements was gone.

Interested in learning more about the skills and practices that help children be ready for kindergarten and read successfully by the end of third grade? Visit the Rainin Foundation’s research page.

Paula Ambrose

Paula Ambrose

Program Officer, Education

Paula manages the grantmaking for the Foundation’s early literacy initiatives. Read more.


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