An Elementary School Principal Leads a School-Wide Literacy Transformation

The Challenges: When Dr. Sonya Campbell first arrived at Alexander Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina in the fall of 2013, she faced a slew of challenges. The 450 Kindergarten-through-fifth grade student population was 98 percent high-poverty, 52 percent learning disabled, and 60 percent English language learners (ELL). “Just about all our students were below grade level in reading,” says Campbell, who also notes that the school was and still is getting at least 20 new students each year who are newcomers to the country.”

Alexander Elementary’s Story: In the late spring of 2015, MindPlay was brought to Campbell’s attention through her superintendent, who had heard good things about the program from other district administrators. That summer, the school integrated MindPlay into its four-week summer school program and saw dramatic results in student literacy achievement over that short period of time.

Encouraged by the summer school results, Campbell began a school wide pilot program in the fall of 2015. Title I funds ensured that every student at Alexander had access to a laptop or tablet during school hours and Campbell also harnessed funds from Title I to make sure that each student at the school had access to the MindPlay Virtual Reading Coach (MVRC).

Overcoming Obstacles: But immediately duplicating the summer school successes proved challenging at first. A major stumbling block early on was getting teachers to use the program with fidelity—that is, 30 minutes a day, five days a week. “At first, what I saw were students only getting an hour or so a week on the program,” says Campbell.

Among the solutions she instituted to effect the change needed, was adjusting the focus of professional development sessions to give teachers more time to share ways of managing the technology in their classrooms, and ensuring they had the time to investigate and get comfortable with the MindPlay program. MindPlay’s teacher support materials also helped those who might be struggling with teaching phonics or other specific aspects of reading. Additionally, Campbell offered weekly perks for teachers whose students showed success with the program, such as being excused from lunch duty and earning a “jeans day.”

As the school’s chief administrator, Campbell also changed the daily schedule to allow for before-school morning tutorials in the cafeteria for students needing extra help and those without access to technology at home. As well, Campbell encouraged staff to make their own time adjustments, such as shaving a few minutes off of lunch and bathroom breaks, to make sure they were able to offer students the daily minimum of time on MindPlay.

Impact: With the time adjustments, weekly recognitions, new professional development focus, and ongoing help from the MindPlay support team, Alexander Elementary was well on its way to reading success by January 2016.

In grades three through five, the school used the program as a tiered intervention, and though all students were making gains, the greatest gains were in grades K-two, says Campbell. The data showed that we began with 78 percent of the students as critical (two years below grade level) and 22 percent approaching (one year below grade level). Even though they were one– to two years below grade level, we ended the year with 100 percent either approaching or meeting phonics level 1.

Integrating MindPlay into the curriculum has also affected the school on a larger scale. In addition to the dramatic student academic gains, school climate has been “hugely” impacted for the better, says Campbell. Professional collaboration and sharing have become a part of the school culture as teachers are always now exchanging stories and tips about their successes with MindPlay. Internal and external recognition of teacher and student success—-through newsletters, announcements, and a wall displaying the certificates kids are earning as they “graduate” from different sections of the program— has also contributed to an upbeat school climate.

There are also many more conversations around student outcomes based on performance, says Campbell. “MindPlay makes it possible to have the raw data right there. Teachers can look at the program’s error reports to find out what students are doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Dovetailing with District Goals: Campbell also says MindPlay has been a big boost to the district goals of every child achieving reading literacy by third grade and providing an excellent early childhood education. College and career readiness also tie directly into students’ ability to read well and at earlier ages.

After the district saw the results at Alexander Elementary, they decided to purchase MindPlay for all their Title I elementary and middle schools. MindPlay’s ability to teach learners from Kindergarten through adult and its inclusion of materials such as Understanding Dyslexia that help teachers not trained in teaching reading are additional reasons for the district’s confidence in MindPlay.

After the successes at Alexander Elementary, Campbell is lobbying for all schools and students in the district to adopt the MindPlay program. She talks about the power of the program to elevate the academic performance of individual students, improve the climate of the school, and inspire teachers. “The teachers are no longer interested in the weekly incentives, instead they just begged me to bring MindPlay back to the school this year,” she laughs.

In the longer term, adds Campbell, MindPlay has the power to break the enduring cycle of poverty that has plagued so many of her students’ families. “We want our students to have the best and brightest futures they can possibly have.”