News and Updates
Investment in Leveled Literacy Intervention Revives Wyoming School District
Greg Figenser, curriculum director, Sweetwater School District #2 in Green River, Wyoming knew where to turn when charged with creating a literacy intervention to address a decade-long slide in reading and writing achievement in his district.
For the past five years, Figenser and his team of literacy educators and elementary school principals have traveled together to Columbus to attend The Ohio State University Literacy Collaborative Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) professional learning. The investment in the framework has delivered positive reforms that have resulted in accolades, for three schools within the district, from the Department of Education as the 2019 and 2022 honorees of a National Blue-Ribbon Schools Award in recognition of their progress in categories of Exemplary High-Performing Schools and Exemplary Achievement Gap-Closing Schools.
“Our longstanding investment and the work we have done with Literacy Collaborative has been relevant and impactful to the growth in our district,” said Figenser.
LLI is an intensive, small group intervention designed to accelerate the literacy development of K-2 and 3-8 students who are below grade level in reading and writing achievement. The professional learning sessions prepare individuals to teach using Leveled Literacy Intervention systems. The sessions include six days: the first three in-person days introduce the LLI frameworks for teaching. Before returning online for the second and third sessions, teachers work with students using LLI. During the second session, teachers refine their work within the framework and understand more about working with students who find literacy difficult. Teachers use their own student data to dive deeper into teaching, prompting, and reinforcing.
Since 2015, Figenser has worked to implement LLI and build a guided reading intervention around the framework in the district. The effort started at Truman Elementary School which was followed by the three remaining city elementary schools (Harrison, Monroe and Washington) in the 2018-2019 academic year.
“I attended the professional learning with my instructional facilitator after joining the staff at Truman Elementary,” said Figenser. “Truman was lowest performing school in our district for about a decade. I was given some free reign to make changes and create an intervention cycle that would be powerful enough to move our kids – I knew I had to come where things first started with Marie Clay coming into the United States – Literacy Collaborative at Ohio State was where the best came to learn.”
Since beginning this transformation, Truman Elementary, along with other elementary schools in the district have made better than average gains in reading and writing. “When I came onboard, about 60 percent of our students were reading below grade level,” said Figenser. “Now that our fifth graders have gone through the entire LLI process, we only have six kids reading below grade level at Truman. So that span of years of difficulty where we were seeing students that were two or three years behind – we don’t see that anymore.”
The gains also garnered national attention. In 2019, Truman Elementary was the first school in the district to be honored with a National Blue-Ribbon Schools Award for exemplary achievement as a gap-closing school. Figenser credits Literacy Collaborative Trainer and Leveled Literacy Intervention Trainer Shelly Schaub for making these types of gains possible and for being the guiding force behind their success building a collaborative culture.
“Shelly has been one of the best trainers I’ve ever had – she has made such an impact with our staff during the sessions as well as when we are back in Wyoming,” said Figenser. “I hear and see such positive differences after working with Shelly. Everyone we involve in the training always mentions that they have a better grasp on how to help a child to read and how they acquire new skills to help them understand what they didn’t in the past – as some colleges and universities do not prepare their teachers how to teach kids to read.”
Schaub has enjoyed seeing great results happening for the district. “I have had the honor to work with the administrators, intervention teachers, and classroom teachers from Sweetwater District for many years. As the Curriculum Director, Greg, has set a high standard for visionary and unwavering student-centered leadership. Greg and his team of administrators have kept a keen eye on student data and have provided the professional learning necessary for teachers to be successful and responsive teachers of readers.”
The district’s drive to LLI implementation was not always met with enthusiasm. “In the beginning, there was some resistance and hesitation to do something different, but once we pointed out to our teachers that the data we would be using to determine the change would be based on their own observations and information, they became more interested and willing to say ‘this isn’t good enough’ – that’s when it all started pulling in the same direction,” said Figenser. “Everyone was working hard, it was just that they were not working on the same things at the same time or in the same direction, so partnering with Literacy Collaborative and working with Shelly helped us put these mechanisms in order.”
As things began to take hold at Truman, principals at the other elementary schools in the district noticed the payoff happening with the LLI implementation. Expansion efforts began throughout the district. “Now when we attend, I also bring my principals so they are a part of the work we will be implementing in classrooms – it gives them working knowledge of what we are trying to do,” said Figenser.
Figenser feels having an administration immersed in how to help teachers in their journey to teaching children how to read is what brings results. “We are all still involved in the learning process, by bringing literacy leaders and principals together at these sessions every year, we can better ensure we are maintaining the district’s focus – we want our students to achieve and continue to help them grow and the only way we do that is through this training.”
Figenser stated another plus to including principals in training is that it improves their understanding of the amount of work that goes into professional learning and yields a better understanding of the investment.
Dave Asselmeirer is principal at Truman Elementary and values participating in LLI professional learning with his staff. “It is important for those overseeing educators to be part of the training process because as our knowledge increases and things change, it keeps us united,” said Asselmeier. “It also avoids potential confusion in the future. Just like everything else evolves over time, this training helps us to all be on the same page as a building and as a district so we call all evolve in a similar fashion – because if all the buildings are just doing their own thing – then it can begin to be and look very different from one place to another and that creates division.”
Asselmeier said another reason he supports combining efforts is because it makes way for sending a greater message throughout the district. “When principals participate it reflects that we are committed to making this work,” said Alsimeyer. “We have a fair number of paraprofessionals in our district that work in our special education areas as well as the classrooms, and they do a lot of the implementation of this framework. The more we can implement and teach toward LLI lessons these paraprofessionals grow in their abilities – which directly benefits the students.”
Asselmeier noted that the district is using the LLI professional learning sessions as a ‘train the trainers’ model to take back and utilize in hopes of reducing the turnover it sees in these areas.
“I will advocate for my staff to continue to come to these sessions because even if you come just once, it is so in-depth, you are ready to take a few things back to start implementing,” said Alsimeyer. “We are coming from a handful of different places of implementation, but everyone comes away with something for us to use, share or change,” added Asselmeier.
Shauna Mandros is now part of the group that attends trainings each year and has also participated in individual coaching sessions with Schaub. Mandros works as the K-5 instructional facilitator that leads instructional cycles with teachers in the district. “This is my third time attending,” said Mandros. In 2021, I came twice and worked virtually with Shelly through a couple of coaching cycles on LLI.”
“It’s different every time I come, because, very often, something is uncovered that I haven’t been able to see before. Mostly, I have found a better understanding around interactions with our students. I see instances where we can put some back on them to promote more self-reliance – or even the other way around – where we are asking too much of students and we shouldn’t be unloading,” said Mandros.
“As educators we are always assessing things in the classroom – that is just how our brain works as teachers, to see things and then follow up, but I’ve learned through this training that, sometimes, when the students are back working with us at the table, the most important thing is to just take a minute to teach something instead of asking so many questions,” added Mandros.
Mandros also commented on the quality instruction she received from Literacy Collaborative Trainer and Leveled Literacy Intervention Trainer Shelly Schaub. “Shelly has a level of expertise like no one that I have worked with before. She’s able to listen to what I am trying to say – and I’m not quite able to articulate the support I need to provide my students – she is able to listen and process and bring me back to exactly what I need and is able to put it into an idea and action that a teacher is able to understand. She’s such a resource to all of us,” Mandros said.
Moreover, Mandros found the session topics translational. “The thought origin in these training sessions has many times turned into success in our coaching cycles with the teachers. Everything is so even keeled through teachers in the program that one doesn’t take precedence over the other and reaffirms that we are all working collaboratively for whatever our goal is,” Mandros said.
“It is so hard not to unload all of what we learn during these sessions all at once, so we have a structure of professional learning for our staff every other week to go over a piece of what we learned during our training. The LLI sessions reiterate how to be most effective when we return and outlines best practices of implementation,” added Mandros.
Figenser stated the group plans to continue making the annual trek to Columbus to continue the district’s trajectory of achievement. “We are committed to providing top-notch implementation support in our district to strengthen the transfer of new learning into the classroom. The best practices we learn here are fostering continuous improvement and having a positive impact on our staff and students.”