Editor’s Note: In-depth research and exploratory pilot programs are helping develop the Strauss Literacy Initiative, a collaborative effort managed by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, to help identify and intervene with learning and reading abilities so students of all ages can access much-needed resources. Strategic partnerships and grantmaking with an evolving group of partners will support these efforts.
Visible Men Academy is the first of several partnerships developed to help children, families and educators as this initiative grows. The Strauss Literacy Initiative aligns with the Community Foundation's longstanding commitment to education work, including the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national movement to empower children to achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
A Kindergarten student at Visible Men Academy takes a literacy screener alongside Kindergarten teacher Tanisha Knight.
The Kindergartner lingers in front of the tablet, waiting for the next command.
“Say the word ‘house,’” a bodiless voice dictates from the device.
“House,” the student repeats slowly, emphasizing the “ou” sound in the word.
“Say the word ‘door,’” the voice continues.
The student first enunciates the ‘duh’ sound of the letter ‘D’ and then says the rest of the word more confidently.
“Say the word ‘cat,’” the computer spits out once more.
“Kuh,” the child pauses at first, “cat.”
The Kindergartners at Bradenton’s Visible Men Academy (VMA) think this is just a game. Maybe that’s why they don’t fret over their answers. They don’t realize the fun computer app they’re using is actually a literacy screener designed to identify reading issues and connect teachers to the right interventions with the ability to help predict the potential for literacy challenges like dyslexia.
A detail shot of a literacy screener taken by Kindergarten students at Visible Men Academy.
Their results could have implications for years to come. VMA is the first pilot in a sweeping Community Foundation of Sarasota County initiative focused on early screening for literacy issues in children, endowed by the $23 million Ira and Patricia Strauss Fund for Children’s Literacy.
For the first time in the school’s history, VMA is screening many of its 81 Kindergarten through fifth grade students for literacy issues. In the past, typical signs, like flipping letters, were thought to emerge at the third grade level. It’s normal for Kindergarten, first, and even second graders to flip their letters, but by the time they reach third grade, that should stop or the child should be correcting that behavior themselves.
Still, VMA Kindergarten teacher Tanisha Knight never understood why students weren’t screened earlier.
“I’ve always wondered who is deciding why we wait so long to get these children assessed and get them the help that they need,” Knight said. “Whatever they miss here, it’s hard for them to catch up.”
Kindergarten teacher Tanisha Knight pictured in her classroom.
Other signs to look for include writing backwards from right to left and confusing completely dissimilar letter sounds. First-grade teacher Jacqueline Hinds, who is supervising the literacy screening program, offered an example: it may be normal for a student to confuse the letter ‘b’ and ‘d,’ but they should not be confusing the ‘b’ sound with the ‘w’ sound.
School leaders have already identified eight students who need further evaluation. Teachers plan to send a letter to parents in May letting them know that their child will get additional help. Families were notified that their children would be tested.
The key is identifying them early so they can catch up before it is too late, according to Hinds.
“If you close that gap early, then you can close the gap where they will be on level eventually,” she said.
Both Knight and Hinds hope that the results will be clarifying for both parents and students. A student who might have questioned their intelligence will now have access to the literacy support they need to become a confident reader.
“Now they can take ownership of it and really say, ‘Okay, I just need extra help, that’s all I need,’” Hinds said. “It’s not that I can’t do it — I learn differently.”
“They are not where their peers are, but once the teachers find out what’s going on and they are helping them with their success, I’m sure it’s going to boost their confidence,” Knight said.
True superheroes — Kindergarten teacher Tanisha Knight and first-grade teacher Jacqueline Hinds — dressed in their capes.
The teachers hope to equip families and students with quick learning tools they can use to reinforce literacy skills at home. Parents might ask their children to identify letters in the grocery store or pull letters out of a bag and ask them to say the letter.
Even short activities that parents can do repeatedly with their children have the power to make an impact. And in Title I schools, emphasizing the behavior at home as well at school is doubly important.
“Parents are a child’s first teacher and they continue to play a critical role throughout their educational journey,” Kirsten Russell, Vice President of Community Impact at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. “VMA uses a two-generation approach to address the whole child by regularly connecting with parents so that home becomes an extension of the classroom.”
A Kindergarten student takes a literacy screener at Visible Men Academy.
There is much still to explore through the Strauss Literacy Initiative. And yet, everyone involved at VMA agrees on one thing: they can’t wait to see the students’ progress.
“I’m excited to see where this goes,” Hinds said. “I really want to see these kids come up and get all the help that they need.”
Read more about the Strauss Literacy Initiative and how it's uncovering meaningful results and providing a continuum of services at three local organizations, including Visible Men Academy.
Learn more about education and literacy programs supported by the Community Foundation.