York County educators support Haley initiative

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Reading Specialist Andrea Zampetopoulos works with a student at Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School on Friday. Zampetopoulos is one of many teachers pleased Haley is is emphasizing reading.

JEFF SOCHKO — Special to The Herald Buy Photo

  • Highlights of Haley’s reading plan

    • $29.5 million to improve reading, offering a reading coach to every elementary school in the state

    • $6 million for summer reading programs, up from $1.5 million

    • $5 million for reading-related teacher training

On a chilly Friday morning in a small classroom at Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School, a teacher sits and works one-on-one with a first-grader. The student is small, quiet and has a few front teeth missing, like many other first-graders.

Teacher Andrea Zampetopoulos works with her students for 30 minutes, as she does every day. Together, they look at books, at letters, at sentences. They talk about stories and parts of a word and how it should sound when it’s read aloud.

They’re working on that most basic of academic skills – reading, one of the major elements of the proposed education plan Gov. Nikki Haley introduced two weeks ago.

Zampetopoulos, whose official title is “reading recovery specialist,” is one of many educators pleased that Haley is not only paying close attention to education for the first time in three years as governor, but is emphasizing reading and proposing to spend more state money to help students succeed.

One of the main points in Haley’s plan is the creation of a “Reading Coach” program, proposing money to pay for a reading coach position in every elementary school in the state. Schools with lower-performing students would receive a fully-funded coach, while higher-performing schools would get a half-funded position if the districts match the state money.

The impact of a reading coach on a school environment is “immeasurable,” Fort Mill Elementary Principal Jeanette Black said.

“In our school, we think of it as, ‘If you teach a man to fish...’” Black said, referring to the saying about helping people learn to be self-sufficient.

In most districts, reading coaches teach other teachers how to more effectively teach kids how to read. Reading coaches help all teachers in a school, Black said, who can then help more students.

“Part of my frustration is there are a lot of kids that need help, and one person isn’t reaching them,” said Kim Simpson, a reading recovery specialist at Mount Holly Elementary School in Rock Hill.

In the reading recovery program, each specialist works for about 20 weeks with four first-grade students who test low in reading skills. Each student gets 30 minutes of one-on-one time with the reading specialist each day.

When they’re not working one-on-one, Simpson said, specialists work in small groups with other children who are struggling, or they observe students in the classroom to identify what additional support might be needed.

But reading coaches could reach more teachers, who, in turn, could provide more specialized reading support to a greater number of students, she said.

“They teach the masses, so that hopefully strengthens instruction, as well,” Simpson said.

Constant professional development, like what could be seen with reading coaches already in place, has helped reading recovery programs in Fort Mill and Rock Hill a great deal, said Polly Wingate, the reading recovery teacher leader who trains and works with specialists in both districts.

“The strength of reading recovery is that it’s a three-tiered professional development plan,” she said.

The specialists also help each other a great deal, Zampetopoulos said, by meeting regularly, observing each other and video-chatting during lessons so other specialists can see a student at work.

This school year, the Chester County school district made sweeping changes to its reading program in anticipation of state-mandated improvements to reading programs, associate superintendent Charles King said.

“We structured the money where it would impact kids the most,” he said.

This included hiring reading coaches and interventionists at middle and elementary schools, adding books to classrooms and media centers and providing additional spaces for collaboration among teachers.

Although there are no test scores yet to show how these changes might be affecting student performance, King said, it has been well-received across the district.

“Our folks are really excited that they see a difference being made with kids wanting to read, with kids being more adept at reading,” he said.

King, Wingate, Black, Zampetopoulos and Simpson said they are pleased that more money to hire reading specialists might be coming, and they are hopeful it won’t be a one-time occurrence – a sentiment expressed by area superintendents when Haley announced her plan.

Haley’s plan also called for increased spending on summer reading programs, something Simpson and Wingate labeled as invaluable to young readers.

“It’s significant for students, whether they’re struggling readers or not,” Wingate said. “But it’s much harder for those who are behind grade level to catch up when school starts again.”

All Rock Hill schools have some kind of summer reading program, Simpson said. At Mount Holly Elementary, she sends books home over the summer with any student who wants them.

“If the students don’t do any kind of reading” over the summer, she said, “there’s definitely a regression. If those students do read books, they seem to maintain their reading level.”

During summer months, studies show, students in early elementary school years can lose large amounts of knowledge and skills gained during the school year.

Another thing that could provide a serious boost to reading skills is more pre-kindergarten programs, Black said.

“If I could wave the magic wand and have as much money as I needed,” she said, “I would have earlier intervention programs and pre-kindergarten to build foundational skills for reading.”

With first-grade reading recovery students, Simpson has to start with the most basic of basics – how to hold a book, how to turn the page, recognizing that words are read from left to right and top to bottom – skills most people take for granted.

Meanwhile, while legislators and administrators debate how to spend money on additional reading programs and how much should be spent, Zampetopoulos and a student sit at a table and read and write and talk.

They read stories about sparrows and puppies lost in the woods and fishing, books with challenging words for a struggling reader, like “I’m,” “went” and “forgot.”

And when the student accomplishes a big task, like writing her own sentence, she gets a high five and a compliment.

“You’re one smart cookie!” Zampetopoulos tells her.

Her student replies, with a missing-tooth grin, “I’m not a cookie,” and the pair moves on to their next book.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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