LAURINBURG — To help prepare elementary students for rigorous reading comprehension tests at the third-grade level, school officials plan to implement districtwide a software program that’s seen such success at North Laurinburg Elementary, its developers have featured the school in a promotional video.
Scotland County’s students will join the more than 200,000 already using Imagine Learning programs in more than eight countries, according to the software company’s website. Its programs target those learning English, those just learning to read and those with developmental disabilities — and according to Rachel Burris, Scotland County’s elementary education director, it is more closely aligned to the state’s newly implemented Common Core reading standards, or Read to Achieve, than any other program she’s come across in the early elementary market.
“And it’s not just the new standards,” Burris said Friday in an interview with North Laurinburg Principal Rodney Byers, district spokesperson Meredith Bounds and Pamela Baldwin, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “… It really hits on basic information like phonics and fluency, but at the same time, for kids who don’t need that much extra help in that area, it gives them excellent practice with the reading standards and allows them to develop their critical thinking, like comparing and contrasting.”
The video, which can be viewed at bit.ly/PzIKAD, shows rows of children at desks wearing headphones and writing along with, speaking to and otherwise interacting with the software. Third-grade teachers Ashley Locklear and Alison McCormick, like Burris, say the program helps with reading comprehension, while allowing kids to feel as if they’re playing a game rather than studying; and Baldwin says the program tracks progress in a way both teachers and students understand.
“The most important thing is, the kids love it,” Byers said.
Founded in 2004 in Provo, Utah, by Susan Preator, a graduate of Bringham Young University and former employee of Pearson Digital Learning, Imagine Learning operates under the leadership of several who also graduated from that institution, the current CEO Joe Swenson having previously served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Students at North Laurinburg use the program in 30-minute intervals, taking turns sitting at a computer and receiving one-on-one instruction. While incorporating software into the classroom is a well-established trend, Baldwin says, it is meant to supplement, not replace, teacher and student interaction.
On Friday, 8-year-old Mondale Patterson, a student in Cynthia Lide’s class, bopped to music he created with the software by selecting a sequence of letters, each with a corresponding beat, that eventually made a word. He was one of three seated at the classroom’s computer stations while a group discussion took place at the front of the room.
The game is one, the second-grader said, that he would play at home if he could.
It is not clear how much the program will cost the school system to implement districtwide. Bounds said she was unable on Friday to procure that information, and Baldwin said she didn’t have those numbers on hand but knew it was paid for partially with Race to the Top funds, federal education dollars.
At a June 2013 meeting, the Scotland County Board of Education approved a contract for $36,500 for a “site license” at North Laurinburg Elementary. That number did not include a $3,500 implementation fee and a $2,600 sales tax.
According to Baldwin, the program is part of an “overall vision for literacy,” one the district will be implementing piece-by-piece as it determines the best way to prepare students for Common Core’s requirements. This includes a new way of teaching phonics in the district’s kindergarten classes, and new reading programs as children enter middle school — building blocks that Baldwin hopes will pave for teachers a clear instructional path.
“They’ll know that when they send their kindergarten students on to the next couple of grade levels, that that support from that phonics is aligned with that next step in the process,” Baldwin said. “I was a high school teacher and oftentimes I taught ninth graders, and if I didn’t know what was happening at eighth grade and tenth grade, that was a huge disconnect. I really feel like we’re connecting those dots.”
Burris, a staunch supporter of both the reading and the more controversial math component of the Common Core curriculum, says that the conceptualized instruction focuses on teaching children not just how something should be done, but the reason why.
“It’s not that they’re asking them to learn more, they’re asking them to have a greater understanding,” Burris said. “… I think people really don’t understand what the standards are asking kids to do. If you look at where the United States has fallen globally, we’ve fallen down compared to other nations and so we’ve got to amp up our education system. And there’s no reason why our students cant meet those demands if the teachers aren’t trained to teach and think that way.”
Read to Achieve, Burris says, teaches students to pick out important pieces of a story, make their own inferences and opinions, and by fifth grade, be able to support their opinion with textual references — all skills needed in college and careers.
“That’s what it comes down to, is you have to train the kids to think in that way. It’s a higher expectation of thinking. To me, the Common Core standards are standards you see in any higher education system, so why shouldn’t all kids have the opportunity to think like that?”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.