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With a generation’s literacy at stake, WVU joins schools and communities to combat COVID-19 learning loss

Photo of six grade-school children, boys and girls, all wearing masks, sit together during a reading program. The instructor is female and is wearing a brightly colored tie dyed shirt. They are sitting in a room full of windows.

Elementary students in Weirton participate in the Read with Me Weirton program which is designed to improve literacy rates. (Submitted photo)

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A statewide education initiative is bringing West Virginia University literacy consultants together with local schools and communities to reverse pandemic-driven early learning loss.

Experts say plummeting reading scores are partially linked to the virtual, learn-from-home model adopted when COVID-19 shuttered schools. Now, the WVU West Virginia Public Education Collaborative and the College of Applied Human SciencesSchool of Education are involved in efforts to resurrect literacy proficiency.

Two programs supported by WVPEC’s Sparking Early Literacy Growth initiative have based their approaches on reaching beyond classroom walls, forming partnerships to support struggling students.

A double dose of learning in Weirton

In 2020, literacy scores plunged in Weirton. But in 2021, after the Read with Me Weirton program launched an afterschool and summer tutoring intervention, reading and writing proficiency among students who’d received a “double dose” of literacy instruction through tutoring jumped back up by the equivalent of more than one-and-a-half grade levels.

“That’s a pretty big deal,” Donna Peduto, WVPEC’s executive director, said. “You see what targeted intervention does when you have a little bit of funding and support. It’s just amazing to think of that learning loss being reversed.”

Read with Me Weirton focuses on delivering extra help after school and over the summer to first- and second-graders who score lowest on the STAR Reading Assessment.

“That extra dose of instruction outside school, coupled with the consistency of instruction that community partners provide, has been transformational,” said Christina Petrone, a CAHS graduate research assistant who serves as a WVU literacy consultant for the project.

Weirton’s community tutors note feeling empowered to help students by learning to speak the same language as teachers. The number of teachers reporting confidence teaching phonics jumped from 21% to 58% after the program provided them with specific strategies for teaching students with literacy challenges.

“Weirton’s strength is in using a structure that’s in place and being intentional about leveraging established partnerships to make a difference,” Canyon Lohnas, a WVPEC program specialist, said.

Building a Village brings learning home

At Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary in Charleston, Building a Village works with teachers and Principal Destiny Spencer to meet students and families where they live — literally.

Building a Village brings family-oriented literacy activities to the Littlepage and Orchard Manor developments, two West Side housing complexes that many MCS students call home.

Equally, the project fuels partnerships aimed at creating permanent, self-sustaining literacy and developmental centers within those complexes, centers that will offer learning opportunities to children and caregivers alike.

Shanequa Smith, a restorative practitioner and WVU alumna who leads Building a Village with Melanie Page, the director of the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortiumknows that “many of the children who struggle with behavioral and academic issues” live at Littlepage and Orchard Manor.

“If we can put developmental and literacy centers there, then we’ll be helping the kids and the families with something long-term,” Smith said. “The centers can be a place not just to drop kids off, but to build parenting skills and become part of a support system.”

Page said she was eager to “follow Dr. Smith’s idea of building up the community to take advantage of their strengths. Dr. Smith taught me that we cannot solve complex problems with projects but have to build relationships that allow communities to thrive.”

With Meadow Graham, a literacy consultant and CAHS adjunct instructor, Building a Village also gets MCS teachers the tools they need, including professional development around early literacy skills and classroom management.

“I hope to combine those issues to help provide early literacy instruction in a way that engages and motivates students,” Graham said. “Classrooms filled with interested students are easier to manage.”

Two communities, one goal

Recently, the National Center for Education Statistics released the Nation’s Report Card, revealing that reading and math scores fell for fourth- and eighth-graders in all states across the country, including in West Virginia, with average reading scores for those grades coming in at the lowest ever recorded for the state.

Peduto explained that education experts are so alarmed about test scores for early learners because “third grade is the development marker. If reading doesn’t happen by third grade, students will be at an academic disadvantage.”

Peduto and her colleagues are hopeful that the programs in Weirton and Charleston will reverse the trend.

“I certainly think it’s possible to see progress and change, even in only a short time," Graham said. "The teachers are already hard at work doing so much to support their students, and making these school-community connections is an important way to effect long-term change.” 

Both Building a Village and Read with Me Weirton are supported by Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation funding through Sparking Early Literacy Growth grants. The Benedum Foundation has named Sparking Early Literacy Growth in West Virginia as the foundation’s 75th anniversary project in education.



MEDIA CONTACT: Micaela Morrissette
Research Writer
WVU Research Communications

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