Newark Public Schools’ Initiatives Aim to Address Student Reading and Writing Challenges

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Newark Public School administrators have formulated a plan with the goal of improving student performance following the release of spring state test scores, which revealed challenges in writing and English language arts.

During a recent committee meeting, Jazleen Othman, the director of the district’s English language arts department, identified three issues in the district’s instruction: ineffective reading instruction during the pandemic, a simplified curriculum, and inadequate writing instruction.

Othman informed the board that her department aims to address these problems through various strategies, including introducing new phonics teaching methods, implementing explicit writing strategies, and enhancing teachers’ knowledge of evidence-based reading techniques known as the science of reading.

This targeted plan comes in response to the recent state test results, which demonstrated that Newark students still require academic support to recover from the pandemic. For the second consecutive year, most Newark students performed below pre-pandemic levels in reading. In grades 3 to 9, an average of 29% of Newark students passed the English language arts portion of the exam, compared to 36% in 2019 before the pandemic.

Certain grades performed even worse. Only 19% of the district’s third-graders passed ELA, the lowest among all grade levels in Newark for the second consecutive year. Seventh and eighth graders achieved the highest scores in English language arts, with each at approximately 37%, an increase of about 4 and 5 percentage points respectively compared to the previous year.

Public school leaders attribute reading difficulties in the early grades to the shift to remote learning during the pandemic, which they say has impeded students’ reading progress and resulted in disfluent readers.

District officials also revealed that they have developed a new ELA curriculum for grades K-8, which is being used in classrooms this year. Newark Public Schools has provided limited information about the new curriculum to Newark through a public records request.

District to Prioritize New Reading and Writing Strategies

The district’s efforts to enhance students’ skills began over the summer when approximately 10,000 public school students with low attendance, grades, and state test scores were required to attend summer school in order to address areas of difficulty in math and reading, such as decoding words, handwriting, and reading comprehension, among others.

According to Deering, students are struggling with basic alphabetic knowledge, which involves recognizing letters and their corresponding sounds.

However, Othman provided even more specific details to the school board last month.

The district’s Office of English Language Arts is embracing a structured approach to phonics instruction by implementing SIPPS, also known as Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Sight Words. This research-based approach guides students through the reading development process, and new and struggling readers learn through explicit routines that focus on word sounds, spelling, and high-frequency words, which are the most commonly used words in writing.

The district is also implementing Wilson Fundations, a curriculum rooted in the science of reading that establishes the foundations for reading, spelling, and handwriting. This work is complemented by the Geodes Classroom Libraries, a collection of books that assist new and developing readers by building on the skills taught in the Wilson Fundations curriculum.

Deering mentioned that this is not the first time the district has incorporated elements of the science of reading. Since 1998, the district has adopted components of this approach, which prioritize students’ learning of reading and writing fundamentals through word decoding and letter-sound recognition.

During the presentation to board members, Othman stated that once children learn to decode words, they should receive grade-level reading and writing opportunities and engage in discussions about grade-level work in order to foster critical thinking.

After identifying issues with writing instruction, the district enlisted the help of The Writing Revolution, an organization that assists school districts in implementing its explicit writing strategy known as the Hochman Method. According to the organization, this approach is not an independent writing curriculum, but rather a set of strategies integrated into student learning.

Preparing Teachers in Reading Instruction Fundamentals

Othman and her team found that the district’s ELA curriculum is simplified, resulting in limited exposure to grade-level content and opportunities for critical thinking. Teachers, vice principals, department chairs, and teacher coaches will need to learn how to unpack the new curriculums.

The district plans to provide professional development training to teachers and school leaders to support the transition to new learning approaches, according to Deering, and will make adjustments as they monitor students’ academic progress.

Since August 2022, over 1,800 Newark public school educators have enrolled in The Writing Revolution’s online training program to familiarize themselves with and implement the new method. The organization has collaborated with district schools and leaders to visit classrooms and offer ongoing support. During the summer, the strategy was integrated into the first two units of the English Language Arts curriculum.

The district stated that it will evaluate the effectiveness of the new curriculums and approaches mainly based on students’ academic progress in reading, as well as through state test scores and periodic assessments such as the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) MAP growth assessment.

Officials will adjust their approach based on student achievement and growth.

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