Park City School District reading program comes under scrutiny
The Park City School District is restructuring its reading program in an effort to engage struggling readers early and lower the achievement gap, but some in the community say it’s a step in the wrong direction.
Much of the ire surrounds the district’s plan to reallocate the resources it uses for reading aides. Starting next year, alongside the district’s offering of free all-day kindergarten, each kindergarten class will have a full-time reading aide. Each elementary school will also have an interventionist — a new position designed as a combination of a reading aide and English as a Second Language (ESL) specialist — who will assist students in all grades.
McPolin Elementary School and Parley’s Park Elementary School, which have the highest percentage of low-income families in the district, will each have an additional part-time interventionist and two extra aides for struggling readers.
That model is in contrast to what the district has done in recent years. Each elementary school currently has a number of aides and ESL specialists who pull struggling readers out of class to give them extra help. But Ember Conley, the district’s superintendent, said that approach is out-of-date and has not yielded good enough results.
"Pulling students out of class is actually one of the worst things you can do for education because our students have to be exposed to that high-level academic language," she said. "Being able to have our students in their classrooms, with push and assistance from our instructional coaches, the interventionist and our teachers will be huge."
In addition to restructuring the aides, the district is aiming to arm teachers with the proper tools to teach reading throughout all grades, Conley said. A curriculum-mapping approach begun this year allows the district to identify the skills students must master, but gives teachers flexibility in how they teach them.
"It actually brings creativity back into the classroom," Conley said, adding that the district is also putting a focus on having more teachers earn reading endorsements. "That’s something that our teachers have been crying for, is to have more creativity and autonomy."
The goal of the new reading program is to give all students a strong literacy foundation in kindergarten — which research has shown creates a positive ripple effect throughout students’ entire educational careers — then foster it as they grow older, Conley said. The shift is largely targeted at Park City’s low-income, at-risk population. Testing from 2015 showed that only 7.9 percent of the district’s English-language learners (ELL) were proficient in reading, compared to 81 percent of students district-wide.
Conley said the old approach was failing the students who needed it the most. She expects the new program to deliver much better results and significantly narrow the achievement gap.
"In 10 years from now," she said, "when (at-risk) students have been in our system for that long, they’re going to be 90- to 100-percent proficient. That’s my goal."
But many in the community remain skeptical that the new reading model is a step forward.
A petition was created on change.org to ask the district to keep the current reading program, as well as the aides and ESL specialists who work with children in all grades. The petition, which had 197 signees as of Monday afternoon, questioned whether all-day kindergarten will actually reap long-term benefits and warned that the shift to the new reading program is one that will have a "huge impact on the future of our children’s education in Park City."
Many commenters on the petition decried the district taking away many of the reading aides and ESL specialists from first through fifth grades. Among those concerned is Kellie Hatcher, a parent with two students at Parley’s Park Elementary School.
Hatcher worried that students in other grades — and of all skill levels — will make less progress without the extra support the aides currently provide.
"Test scores are low, and we do need a change," she said. "But the answer is not to take things away — it’s to build them up even more."
Conley acknowledged the concerns many have about the new reading program but said the changes are in the best interests of the students.
"Change is hard upfront, and we know that," she said, "but the long-term results of having a system in place to address the needs are critical."
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A Trailside resident, and Snyderville Basin Planning Commission member, launched a write-in campaign for the Park City Board of Education hoping to “get the trust of the community back.”