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New Hope for Students Facing Multiple Challenges in Reading

Michael Vergara Published: April 16, 2019

In the Fresno Unified School District in Central California, agriculture is the primary economic driver, many students come from transient families, most live in poverty, crime is high, and parental involvement is low.

Lyle Patty teaches third grade at the K-6 Mayfair Elementary School, where 100 percent of the student population is on free or reduced lunch and 65 percent are English language learners, mostly Hispanic/Latino.  Because the school scored just 23 percent proficiency on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), a Common Core State Standards test for English language arts/literacy and mathematics, Patty well knows that his major instructional challenge is to improve student literacy.

Choosing MindPlay as a Solution

After researching programs, Patty found and was impressed by the MindPlay Virtual Reading Coach (MVRC). “It wasn’t just focused on phonics, which so many reading programs are,” he says. “It also addressed fluency, comprehension, and other specific reading skills. With its reports and other features, it was just more comprehensive than other products I’d seen and it addressed the needs of all kids, not just some.”

During the spring semester of the 2016-2017 school year, when he was teaching first grade, Patty introduced MVRC to his entire class of 24 students. “The core curriculum alone was not addressing their instructional needs adequately, and we had limited access to technology,” he says. Using his own money and the online fundraising website Donors Choose, Patty was able to purchase enough Chromebooks for every student. Because there was no school budget for it, he also personally funded MVRC for each learner, believing that it could significantly improve their skills.

Outstanding Results

In February 2018, Patty presented to staff the gains of his first-grade students from the previous year. “I used the MindPlay progress monitoring graph and showed ‘before’ and ‘after’ MindPlay scores based on MindPlay Performance Categories.” When he began with MVRC in October, eighteen students were at Critical, five were at Approaching, and one was at Meeting. After participating in the MindPlay program until the end of the school year, only four students were at Critical, and the rest were at Meeting or Exceeding.

Patty’s non-reading first-graders improved to the second-grade level and a few to the third-grade level. “In prior years, about 65 to 70 percent of my students achieved grade level. With MindPlay, 80 to 85 percent achieved grade level. Of the students who remained at Critical, two of them were later identified for a special education class. They had improved, but not significantly, because of cognitive delays.”

Facing Teacher Skepticism

Battling ingrained low expectations was one challenge Patty had to overcome. When he presented his data to school staff, most were skeptical. “Our educators had become accustomed to the status quo in which students entered as low achievers and maintained low achievement. Previously, it was considered good to have 40 to 50 percent of the school’s students attain reading grade level. I shared my success with MindPlay because I hoped teachers would use the program, replicate the results, and succeed in closing foundational reading gaps.”

Despite teacher skepticism, it’s hard to argue with results. Because of his students’ success with MindPlay, Patty’s school chose to participate in a MindPlay three-and-a-half month preview for the 2017-2018 spring semester.

All 575 students from first to sixth grade, and five in kindergarten, were placed on MindPlay. Mayfair teachers committed to using MindPlay at least four days a week, 30 minutes a day, from the middle of March until the end of May.

Teachers Get On Board

Teachers who used MindPlay with fidelity and enthusiasm had the most success. Patty says they gave motivational speeches to excite their students about working on the programsome implemented reward systems, such as choosing items from a treasure box or having a short extra recess on Fridays. “But kids were already motivated by their own progress,” he says.

Many of the teachers soon became “cheerleaders” for the program, asking Patty questions about MindPlay and wanting to know how to use it more effectively.

The students of five third-grade teachers who worked together as a team demonstrated the most reading improvement. These teachers put regular time into their daily schedule to use MindPlay, walked around to monitor student participation, tracked fidelity, and looked at data to identify common errors. They were actively involved and engaged with students using the program.

2017-2018 Spring Preview Success

Third-grade students performed best during the preview. They had an average .63 (two-thirds) reading grade level gain in three-and-a-half months. Students who showed the most success had started at Critical. They filled in gaps in phonics and fluency. Thirty-three percent of the students at Critical moved to Approaching or Exceeding. Students from one third-grade class had an average of .96 grade level gain; another grade had an average of .91 grade level gain.

Fourth-grade students also had an average of .63 (two-thirds) grade level gain. Students began the preview with 45 percent at Critical and ended with only 19 percent at Critical (a 26 percent grade-level gain).

Teacher Enthusiasm Key to Student Success

Teacher involvement is vital to students’ reading gains, says Patty. “I explain to my students that they have an opportunity to become better readers. I want them to feel excited because we have something to help them. Teacher motivation affects student motivation! A teacher needs to trust that the program will do what it was designed to do, and then be patient.”

Realistic expectations are important because reading gaps cannot be eliminated overnight, he says.  “I believe that any classroom in our school can replicate my results because students come from the same environments, have the same issues, and can achieve the same success as other students.”

Promoting Parent Engagement

Although about 50 percent of his students come from non-English speaking households, that does not dissuade Patty. “Most of my parents are involved because I go out and find them,” he says. In some cases, he visits homes, using a translation device or having older children translate. He also uses MindPlay reports and the Bloomz connection app to keep parents abreast of their children’s progress.

Patty says the parents are grateful their children are succeeding in reading. Like the teachers, they had earlier accepted their kids weren’t going to do well. “There was a feeling that since they, themselves, couldn’t do it, their children probably couldn’t either.”

Shattering Biases with the Right Resources

Patty says he appreciates how MindPlay allows students to work at their own level. “They have little frustration with the program because they are working at the ‘right’ level.” He also likes the progress monitoring, which provides a new assessment every two weeks showing students’ growth. He notes, as well, that the MindPlay printed certificates are a “mini reward,” allowing students to see and feel good about the progress they are making.

With the right tools, technology, and motivation, even students from greatly disadvantaged circumstances can learn as well as students from the wealthier areas of the district, Patty says. “I want to shatter the bias that students who face multiple challenges can’t learn.” It is just that they need the right tools, resources, and programs to help them fill the learning gaps they face. MindPlay gives our students the same opportunities to learn to read as other students. Teachers are a significant part of that process too!”

The future is looking brighter for students at Mayfair Elementary. Patty says educators voted to use MindPlay again next year for all first-through-sixth-graders, this time on the school’s dime. Because of one teacher’s dedication and refusal to accept a culture of failure, learners who once faced uncertain pathways ahead now have new hope and a real chance to succeed in reversing the inter-generational legacy of poverty.

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