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Among large city school districts, Philadelphia ranked second to last on fourth-grade reading scores on the recently released National Assessment for Educational Progress exam. Only 41% of Philadelphia fourth graders are reading even at a basic level with only 17% scoring proficient or advanced. To reverse this trend, two partners in Philadelphia’s citywide Read by 4th Campaign, Teach For America and the AIM Institute for Learning & Research, are partnering to deliver an innovative pilot program to provide local principals and teachers with knowledge on the science behind how to effectively teach reading.

The program’s pilot cohort, which recently launched in December 2019, includes 25 individuals from local schools in the city. Five Philadelphia principals from Powell Elementary, Global Leadership Academy-West, Mastery Shoemaker, Mastery Harrity, and Overbrook Education Center – all of whom are alumni of Teach For America – along with primary education teachers, special education teachers, and literacy coaches will participate in the AIM Pathways: Pathways to Proficient Reading online teacher professional development course until its conclusion in June.

The Pathways to Proficient Reading course provides teachers with a comprehensive introduction to the science of reading including, but not limited to, explicit phonics instruction. The AIM Pathways online training platform contains hundreds of tools to help teachers work with students and can be accessed by teachers in the classroom as they work to translate the research into their instructional practice.

“Our organization is committed to ensuring all children have access to an excellent education and the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for future success and economic mobility. Literacy is quite possibly the most critical skill a child develops during their primary education years. We’re incredibly excited about how this program will benefit students in our city,” said Anna Shurak, executive director of Teach For America in Greater Philadelphia. “We know children from all backgrounds and incomes can succeed academically when provided opportunity, and we’re hoping this pilot will help more local principals and teachers deliver the very best reading instruction to students.”

For decades, research has suggested that to learn how to read, children first need to be taught how letters represent speech sounds. However, despite the evidence, many teacher education programs and in-service training programs do not consistently emphasize the critical importance of explicit phonics instruction.   Many commercially available reading programs also are not aligned to the science in this area. Thus, Philadelphia’s pilot program has principals and teachers engaging in approximately 45 hours of online coursework and participating in a series of online coaching sessions with AIM facilitators focused on implementing research-based best-practices in their school context.

Suruchi Lall Keenheel, an alum of TFA and the AIM Institute’s director of instructional coaching and training commented, “as a special education teacher for a number of years, I learned that having specialized knowledge in the science of reading is a critical factor for teaching students to be skilled readers and writers.” Speaking to one of the program’s benefits, she added, “once a teacher has mastered the use of evidence-based literacy practices, that knowledge will remain with them regardless of whether the curriculum and resources available to them change from one school year to the next. I’m energized by this partnership between the AIM Institute and Teach For America, and I’m confident that this rigorous, implementation-focused literacy pilot will have a significant impact on the education of the participants’ current and future students.”

Megan Zor, a 2004 TFA Philadelphia alum who came to the program having already received her undergraduate degree in education, is a reading specialist and response to instruction and intervention coordinator at Mastery Charter Schools-Shoemaker Campus. As a participant in the pilot she said, “the program is teaching me key knowledge that I did not learn in my undergraduate nor graduate coursework in education.” She also noted, “I’m learning with my team, and as a result, it's incredibly meaningful.  My principal, my teacher colleagues, and I now have the opportunity to talk about the science of reading more frequently. We get to talk with shared knowledge consistently.”

As measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), two-thirds of children in Philadelphia enter fourth grade unable to read at grade level.  According to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, this gap has a tremendous impact on academic growth for students, especially in fourth grade, when reading evolves from a standalone activity into a vital skill to gain knowledge in other subjects, such as history, math, and science. Without foundational reading skills, too many students, particularly in lower-income communities, are unable to keep up with their peers and continue to fall farther and farther behind throughout their primary and secondary education years. Conversely, when children hit key reading milestones, they often experience greater academic success and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Locally, the city of Philadelphia is working towards progress in this area, with literacy being a focus of community organizations and institutions who are a part of the Read By 4th Coalition’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. In addition, the School District of Philadelphia has redesigned scores of elementary school classrooms to facilitate better reading instruction.

“We know that evidence-based teaching methods are critically important in helping children become successful readers” said Pat Roberts, executive director of AIM Institute. “This literacy pilot using the AIM Pathways platform provides Teach For America educators access to these important topics and hundreds of tools that they can use and access in the classroom to assist students as they become successful readers.”

This new pilot program between TFA and AIM is supported by grant funding from the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation and the Hamilton Family Charitable Trust.

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