Improving Outcomes for Struggling Readers at Crossroads Park Elementary

Cecile Williams

Dr. Bob Davis, Principal at Crossroads Park Elementary in West Des Moines, Iowa, has devoted his career to providing equity in education for all students.  He has a long history of turning around underperforming schools that share common challenges of high poverty levels, limited preschool experience prior to kindergarten, and low student achievement. Understanding that reading proficiency is the gateway to students’ further academic achievement, Davis set out to find a different solution that would drive better results compared to commonly used tools. This pursuit led to a 15-year collaboration with research scientists Dr. Carolyn Brown and Dr. Jerry Zimmermann, co-founders of Foundations in Learning, who have devoted their careers to developing and testing approaches and strategies to ensure all students have access to language development and literacy.

What Davis learned through this collaboration is that while most reading solutions are focused on mastery, they do not take into account how children learn, and, as a result, a subset of students are left behind year after year, unable to make meaningful progress. To address this challenge, Brown and Zimmermann have focused on developing solutions that leverage key findings from cognitive science to ensure that learning “sticks.” Their research demonstrates that it is not enough to learn new skills—students also need targeted and varied practice to apply those skills to new contexts and thereby solidify their learning.

Most recently, Davis’s collaboration with Brown and Zimmermann led to his implementation of the integrated WordFlight (called Foundations Learning System at the time) for students in Grades 2-5. Students are first screened to determine if they may be candidates for intervention in order to reach reading proficiency and, if so, they are further diagnosed to uncover the specific gaps in their foundational reading skills. Once their learning profile is more clearly understood, students participate in targeted and personalized instruction. This blended intervention includes 15-20 minutes per day using an online instructional program that is supported by teacher-facilitated instruction designed to reinforce and support that learning. WordFlight also provides detailed student reports that highlight each student’s progress as well as areas to highlight in future lessons.

To support the implementation of WordFlight, Davis has increased overall instructional time devoted to literacy to 90 minutes daily, which typically includes small group lessons, direct instruction on specific skills or strategies, and “encore time” for skill reinforcement. He also provides his team with research-based professional development on teaching literacy.

Rather than just overseeing implementation, Davis seeks out opportunities to work directly with students.

“Starting several years ago, I began pulling out small groups of students each week to work with WordFlight’s intervention and engage them in conversations about their experience,” said Dr. Davis. “We’ll talk about their errors and any frustrations they encountered as well as what they were learning and how this helped them to decode words or build vocabulary. I also ask them questions, such as, ‘How do you like this?’ and ‘Do you think we’re going to make progress?’”

Dr. Davis also spends a good deal of time observing teachers delivering literacy lessons, monitoring their work, and meeting with them to review the data each week: “Using the WordFlight dashboard, we can see if students are spending the recommended amount of time doing their lessons, as well as their pre- and post-test scores. Teachers will come to me and we work together to problem-solve.”

The results at Crossroads Elementary are impressive. The school was rated as the only “high-performing” school in the district in 2018. As a whole, the school scored 86% on a key reading proficiency measure at the conclusion of last year, with third grade students who received a Foundations in Learning intervention experiencing an average increase in growth  that was 10 points higher than their academic peers that did not receive it. Importantly, teachers now have a better understanding of how decoding and word recognition affects reading fluency and have been able to make an even greater impact.

“What we are doing with Foundations in Learning is working. We see evidence that the children are more fundamentally sound in their understanding of how reading works. Kids are reading better, with a more positive attitude. We are seeing better spelling. Fluency, word recognition and sight vocabulary have all improved.”