Empowering Students, One Phoneme at a Time

Categories: Strauss Literacy Initiative,

In 2018, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County was provided a worthwhile opportunity with the establishment of the Strauss Literacy Initiative: to work with educators to provide a pathway for learners with dyslexia to strengthen reading comprehension.

But in order to fund an initiative that would be able to help students of all ages for years to come, foundation leaders wanted to support partners in developing programs that go beyond screening individual students for dyslexia. Instead, they decided to target professional development for teachers, giving them the tools to empower all students year after year in a series of pilot programs that would eventually lead to systemic change in literacy instruction.

For all the progress made, Strauss is still in its early stages. Preliminary data points are encouraging, both at the quantitative and qualitative level.

“Part of ensuring a child continues to improve is ensuring that they actually enjoy what they’re learning,” said Kirsten Russell, Vice President of Community Impact at the Community Foundation. “To have students who struggle with reading come away from a lesson smiling is no small feat—and it’s something the Strauss Literacy Initiative can count as one of its accomplishments.”

Encouraging early data

Some of the most inspiring results come from Sarasota County Schools’ elementary classrooms. Last year, the district embarked on a pilot effort to implement a small-group instructional framework with phonics-based instruction at four elementary schools, with training conducted by the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning. At the same time, nine district program specialists received specialized dyslexia training wherein they earned Orton-Gillingham certification. The program was so successful in its first year that it is now coming back for a second.

Program head Kari Johnson, a literacy elementary program specialist, said teachers are now divided into two groups—those who went through the program last year and those starting from scratch. Fifteen returning teachers will go through extended professional development and participate in a literacy institute in February with the Lastinger Center. At the same time, a cohort of 17 new teachers and 7 literacy coaches will begin training on small-group literacy instruction and bring this to their classrooms.

Data from last year’s program at Sarasota County Schools makes it clear that this is a strategy that works. Roughly 68% of participating second-grade students had met or exceeded grade-level expectations in reading by the school year’s halfway point. Second-grade reading assessment scores improved from 15th percentile at the first measure to 46th percentile by the third.

That first year also provided lessons of implementation. Last year, principals at participating elementary schools chose the teachers who would go through the training. This year, a wider range of schools were chosen, and teachers were able to self-select into the training. The hope is that this will lead to more buy-in from teachers themselves.

“Literacy is a tough nut to crack,” said Jamie Kattrein, Director of Community Impact at the Community Foundation. “There are teachers that are seeing the results in their classroom and that is motivating them to continue to go on this vulnerable journey in front of a variety of different stakeholders to better serve their students.”

The need is there

When Russell and her team first began researching, they ran into an immediate obstacle: awareness. Public school districts weren’t talking about dyslexia because they didn’t have the tools to address it; dyslexia is in a group of specific learning disabilities and is rarely identified or diagnosed. In some cases, teachers were still utilizing a balanced literacy method that incorporates a combination of phonics—or sounding out words to understand their meaning—and using pictures, context, sentence structure and other cues to make sense of a reading.

The problem, according to research , is that the latter half of this method can harm students more than it helps. If students use outside cues to help inform their reading without understanding the words themselves and the sounds that make them, they’re not so much reading as they are trying to piece together a puzzle with insufficient information. As an alternative to this method, structured literacy offers a systematic approach that teaches students through sounding out words how to read on their own with pleasure.

The Strauss Literacy Initiative’s work in this field comes amidst a broader legislative push from state governments across the United States to enact science of reading instruction in the classroom. An Education Week analysis from July 2023 found that roughly 32 states, including Florida, had “passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction” since 2013. This year, Florida passed legislation effectively banning the balanced literacy approach and instituting “evidence-based professional development activities” for teachers “grounded in the science of reading”, which is in line with the professional development that is being implemented at Sarasota County Schools.

“The great thing about the science of reading is it helps all readers,” Russell said. “We want to help all students read proficiently, and as we’re doing that, we want to identify all students with dyslexia and put them on a path to success.”

Patti’s story

Ira and Patti Strauss came to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County in 2014 with a goal in mind: to ensure no child endured what Patti had.

That meant close to a lifetime of struggling with reading and writing with no clear understanding as to why. The Strausses didn’t want another child to spend most of their life not knowing how their brain worked and not knowing they could be given resources to improve reading comprehension. They earmarked a $23 million endowment—the largest endowed fund in the Community Foundation’s history—toward some specific goals.

First, the fund would help children “of all ages obtain the skills and support needed to read proficiently for their age, with a primary focus on assisting those children challenged with dyslexia or any other obstacle to the development of their reading proficiency.” That sentence established an important mindset for what would become the Strauss Literacy Initiative: the goal wasn’t just to help students with dyslexia or reading challenges. The aim was to help all students through quality literacy instruction, which would in turn help those who were already struggling. While the Science of Reading pedagogical approach is critical for students with dyslexia, it benefits all students.

There were also specifics as to how the instruction would be carried out. At least one or more of the programs supported by the fund should centralize “a phonics component,” which essentially means supporting the science of reading.

And while the fund would certainly support early diagnosis of reading challenges, the initiative would also ensure that children “from birth through college age” could benefit, focusing in large part on the local and regional community. Each program would be monitored over time to ensure positive results.

The Strauss Literacy Initiative effectively began its on-the-ground work in 2021, with three pilot programs at Visible Men Academy, St. Mary Academy, and State College of Florida. These encompassed, respectively, funding an assessment to screen children for dyslexia, providing teachers with Orton-Gillingham training in instruction for struggling readers, and arming college-age students with the tools to better understand and live with their reading disability.

Just as these pilot programs have been fine-tuned over the years, so too has the management of the initiative itself. After consulting with a variety of experts to learn about best practices over time, they narrowed the field down to three experts and created an advisory council.

“That small advisory council of experts really changed the game for us,” Russell said. “Every time something significant happens, we have the opportunity to say, ‘Let’s find best practices first.’ Let’s look at what other people are doing. Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

Expanding reach

But to reach even more students, it was clear that, by 2022, Strauss would have to work with Sarasota and Manatee County public schools. While it was daunting to fund a program that would serve such a large number of students, it was a logical next step in ensuring all students have access to quality reading instruction.

“We wanted to serve the greatest number of students possible, which meant finding a way into the public-school systems,” Russell said.

That led to connecting with the school districts so each district could determine how it wanted to delve into the work, resulting in pilot programs at both Sarasota and Manatee County Schools, as well as the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County. After investigating approaches that would best suit their district, Sarasota County Schools connected with UF’s Lastinger Center, opting to offer teacher training facilitated among a select group of K-2 teachers who participated in small-group learning, phonics-based reading instruction that they could then bring to their students. Manatee County Schools chose to instead focus on early detection, working with EarlyBird’s literacy screener, which helps to assess students for early signs of dyslexia. At the ELC of Sarasota County, educators received coaching in increasing conversational turns and vocabulary for all students, a practice that correlates with stronger literacy outcomes in a child’s future.

Now, with the results of those first pilot programs in hand, the Community Foundation has expanded the programs in Sarasota and continues to work on Manatee’s.

“We took exploratory pilot programs last year and strengthened them this year,” Kattrein said. “It feels like we’re doing less, but really, we’re doing better.”

Help for today and hope for the future

And for students on the other end of the timing spectrum, the Community Foundation’s program at the State College of Florida serves to support students who already grapple with reading difficulties. The funding provides students a consultation with a psychologist to undergo a formal evaluation, as well as technology to ease any difficulties and equalize the classroom for students who struggle with reading, but still want to learn.

“If this didn’t exist, these students would basically just kind of have to muddle their way through college,” said Patricia Lakey, the head of SCF’s Disability Resource Center. “They come to us with very old documentation. They’ve struggled in reading their whole life, but they’ve never had a clear understanding of exactly why and what accommodations can help mitigate that.”

When Lakey meets with students to explain how the grant works, they often get emotional, overwhelmed by the gesture of receiving additional help. The basis of college, and most educational instruction, is reading, Lakey says. Struggling with an essential life skill touches almost everything these students do.

Eventually, Strauss leaders like Kattrein want to fully understand the impact of a dyslexia diagnosis and how that process can be improved. But, for now, the focus is on what is working at the school level—and that’s a lot.

“Right now, we’re testing it and we’re proving that it’s empowering teachers and students,” Russell said, “and changing those trajectories in terms of literacy and what that looks like long-term.”