All Hands on Deck for Literacy

To raise levels of all students, Bangor schools hired literacy coaches, improved teachers’ skills and involved all building staff in the process

By Betsy M. Webb

The Bangor School Department prioritized literacy for all when setting a goal in our strategic plan to increase reading achievement in 2008, not long after I joined the district as superintendent. We are acting now on the belief all students should achieve high levels of literacy by graduation, and all faculty and school staff ought to be involved in reaching this goal.

On any given day, custodians, secretaries and sports coaches might be found reading aloud to youngsters to build their vocabulary; or a building team could be reviewing students’ progress; or the literacy coach might be planning a book author event.

With 54 percent of our 3,700 students qualifying for free or reduced lunch status and the highest student mobility rate in Maine, the district has created a reading culture through a comprehensive, systematic approach. Three essential components contributed to this work: a focus of resources and efforts, commitment to improve instruction, and acceleration and alignment of curriculum.

Focus of resources and efforts. We employed what I call an “All Hands on Deck” call to action, which stressed the importance of providing high-quality instruction to all students no matter the size of their home or whether they even have a home.

Bangor is an outperformer when considering student demographics. As national and state standards were raised, we knew we could not work any harder than we had in the past. Therefore, we had to be smarter about our work and more coordinated.

First, we set expected benchmarks for all grades using Fountas & Pinnell Literacy reading levels in prekindergarten through grade 3, SRI Lexile levels in grades 4-8 and PSAT and SAT Critical Reading and SRI Lexiles in grades 9-12. Then we inventoried our school libraries and invested in new and varied resources to improve the quality and quantity of our library collections. As with many school libraries, we found we did not have as many nonfiction selections.

Read-alouds have built student excitement and comprehension. We set the expectation to have five read-alouds per day, with teachers, custodians, principals, secretaries and all staff contributing. The selections were a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and data were charted to ensure we were close to a 50/50 percentage breakdown.

Book rooms with leveled books (equally split between nonfiction and fiction) have been created in all PreK-grade 8 schools so teachers may pull books specific to each student’s level. Book baskets are set up for each student’s instruction and then books are returned to the book room and new selections are pulled for the next round of instruction.

We launched a concentrated effort to have books available for students to take home at night, on the weekends, during vacations and over the summer. Donations of books were collected and schools held events to pass out books and set up systems where students could return and select new books throughout the summer. In a school where nearly 100 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch status, more than 5,000 books were distributed throughout the summer.

Teachers and administrators pulling wagons of books through the neighborhoods weekly was a common sight and generated excitement for the students who ran to exchange and get new books. This year, we purchased a book bicycle for the weekly deliveries. Each elementary school also set up little libraries outside the school for students and parents to stop by during off hours.

Schools incorporated Self-Selected Read/Read to Self sessions for students and faculty alike to read uninterrupted for designated periods. Student choice was an important aspect of developing a culture of readers. Schools also had schoolwide book studies and evening events with authors for students, parents and staff to further promote the enjoyment of reading with others. (Note to organizers: Be sure to include food!)

In celebration of March Madness, a bracket of books competing against other books are posted during the month. Students read and rate titles, which moves top choices forward in the bracket as favored selections until a final book is the winner for the whole school. Students know they are always allowed to read for enjoyment after their work is completed so it is common to see students and staff walking about the school with their current book of choice.

School newsletters encourage book challenges with principals, teachers, custodians and students sharing their current favorites. Book fairs at all schools are supported through cash donations that fund book purchases for those requiring assistance. Author visits and literacy nights throughout the year contribute to building a culture of readers.

As Peter Senge stated in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, all arrows (resources and efforts) must point to the mission. In Bangor, all arrows had to point toward literacy for all.

Commitment to improve instruction. After setting the goal to improve reading achievement, we set additional goals for professional excellence: 100 percent of faculty and staff would be trained in best practices of literacy, differentiation, accommodation and acceleration and in higher-order thinking. If we were asking all students to pursue excellence in literacy, then we had to commit as a staff to pursue professional excellence to best instruct and support our students.

We hired five literacy coaches to support elementary teachers. They provide six weeks of intensive in-classroom support through coaching cycles to each teacher. They also analyze data with teachers and administrators, curate classroom libraries and bookrooms, teach graduate-level courses after school for teachers, meet weekly with principals to set the professional development goals for the weekly team meetings, provide in-depth training for principals at administrative academies and do validity checks by double scoring 10 percent of the assessments to ensure scores are not inflated and are valid and reliable.

One hundred percent of faculty and staff at the PreK-5 level have completed coaching cycles with a literacy coach in both literacy and math classes. About 80 percent of faculty members have completed graduate-level courses in literacy best practice in the last two school years. All faculty have been trained in the workshop model to differentiate, accommodate and accelerate students, and every teacher has been trained in higher-order thinking.

Data walls are kept up to date and visible with each student’s progress. Names are not used, but rather identification numbers and codes track which students are receiving which supports. Students are screened every three weeks. Then faculty members discuss progress and determine who needs interventions or acceleration. This is when the faculty might brainstorm additional reading time with another adult. Who has time in their schedule? Maybe the custodian, the secretary or the physical education teachers are involved.

The data wall is a way to shift the focus from one teacher’s class of students to a system in which they are seen as all of our students. You can liken these academic checks to wellness checks for literacy progress. If one benchmark is met, students move to the next benchmark no matter what grade they are in. If a 1st-grade student assesses at a Level K at the midyear already meeting the end-of-year target, the teacher would begin working with the student to advance to Level L, the benchmark for 2nd grade, Quarter 2.

By increasing our professional knowledge with support from our frontline literacy coaches, we have seen positive impact on increasing our students’ reading achievement. I cannot emphasize enough the return on investment of hiring literacy coaches to work with students, teachers and administrators in bringing everyone’s knowledge to a new level of success.

Acceleration and alignment of curriculum. When I first joined the Bangor School Department in 2005, reading levels were reported in different formats within the same grades across the district. Additionally, the curriculum and resources often varied from one school to another and even one classroom to another.

With our “All Hands on Deck” call to action, teachers, literacy coaches and administrators have been instrumental in defining a core Bangor experience for all students. Teams consisting of teachers, coaches and administrators set pacing guides for lessons and templates for delivery of instruction. With this systematic approach, students receive a high-quality education and do not skip a beat if they move from one Bangor school to another. 

When the national standards in reading were raised in 2010, Bangor quickly identified ways to transition expectations to align instruction and assessment with these new expectations. We believe all students should attain high levels of literacy by graduation so they achieve postsecondary success. To get there, all of Bangor must continually stretch while working together.

BETSY WEBB is superintendent of Bangor School Department in Bangor, Maine. Twitter: @betsymwebb

-Reprinted with permission from the November, 2019, issue of School Administrator magazine, published by AASA, The School Superintendents Association