Leading for Literacy: Hope in a Time of COVID-19

A guest post from Leroy Gaines, Candidate for OUSD School Board District 5.  All candidates are welcome to share their views on the blog.

A strong instructional focus; targeted use of data at the student, classroom, and school level; shared leadership; and a growth mindset for staff and students. These were the guiding principles I applied over 10 years at ACORN Woodland. ACORN Woodland is a typical East Oakland Elementary School: 95% Latinx and African American, 90% low-income, 70% English Learners, and 15% Special Education students. These demographics do not usually correlate with high academic achievement. Yet with concerted work, we were able to ensure that the vast majority of students grades 1-5 were reading at grade level. Guided by these leadership principles we became a California Distinguished School. Later they enabled a smooth transition to distance learning and the promise of even greater gains after COVID-19.

Teachers in their individual classrooms make high performance possible. However, it is school leadership that makes it possible for all students, year after year, to achieve. I learned these strategies working as a School Transformation Coach with Partners in School Innovation. I refined them as a New Leaders resident principal at Leadership Public School in Richmond. But the people who really taught me how to put theory into action were the staff and parents at ACORN Woodland.

Together we built a program where every student had multiple gateways to literacy. This included a regular English Language Arts period, a special Reading and Writers Workshop Period, and English Language Development integrated in all classes. English Learners had an additional period. Struggling readers were enrolled in an after-school intervention program staffed by Girls Inc. tutors who also assisted in classes during the day. Parents prioritized literacy and staff found creative ways to make this focus possible.

The use of data and a growth mindset to use that data made the possible real. Teachers and tutors continually looked at data to decide which students needed what kind of literacy support. Was it phonics, comprehension, or more challenging literature? Exactly what did each student need? Teacher leaders looked at data weekly to determine how to help their grade level and new teachers. Parents in the SSC looked at all kinds of literacy data monthly and by January were clear on where they wanted to spend school funds for the spring and coming year. I was the only administrator at the school but the combined wisdom and energy of shared staff and parent leadership made unlikely results commonplace.

In 2017 our leadership teams sought a grant for 1-1 chromebooks. Over that year, students learned how to use Google Docs to improve their writing. They used a variety of software to focus on specific math and reading skills they needed. Teachers used Google Classroom to organize and communicate their lessons. The increased types of data allowed teachers to help students the moment they needed it. My successor, Ms. Lambert-Yank, refined this work. When COVID-19 hit last March the transition went smoothly. Ironically, the intense distance learning happening now will actually add strategies to the great work the innovative staff and parent leaders at ACORN Woodland will do once school returns to “normal.”

Leroy is currently a principal coach at New Leaders for New Schools, and a former OUSD principal.

What do you think?

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