Palliser shares stories of success

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The Academic Wrap-Around Team at work.

It’s a feather in the cap of Palliser Regional Schools to have staff rubbing shoulders with some of the sharpest minds in the field of literacy.

While it was an honour to be asked to present at a summit for early literacy leaders, scholars and practitioners, members of Palliser’s literacy team will be doing as much listening as talking at the event which wraps up today in Calgary.

After witnessing the benefits of collaborative work between teachers to help every student achieve success, Director of Learning Cynthia Gietz knows the literacy summit is a great opportunity for Palliser to learn from others. “When Struggling Readers Thrive Dreams, Come True” has attracted internationally-renowned authors and researchers and attendees from across Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

“We definitely don’t have all the answers, but at least we are curious enough to know that we need to know more,” she says.

The importance of literacy – especially in the early grades – was hammered home at last year’s summit, which was the first time the Palliser group took part. They heard at the conference that if children are not reading at grade level by Grade 3, the chance of them catching up gets slimmer with every year that passes.

When a researcher explained that 95 per cent of children should be reading at the appropriate level by the end of Grade 3 if provided with proper instruction, the Palliser team decided to aim high. They set a goal that every student in this year’s kindergarten class will be reading at the expected level by the end of Grade 3 in 2019.

With March 2015 data indicating that 75 per cent of Palliser Grade 3 students were reading at grade level ­– a 10 per cent improvement over the year prior – things are headed in the right direction. When summit organizers heard of Palliser’s lofty literacy goals and the measures being taken to reach them, the invitation to share those best practices was issued.

“Ultimately, what we are doing – and I don’t think we realized it when we first started on this literacy journey  – is we are trying to make reading specialists of most of our teachers, and that’s a huge learning curve for all of us,” says Gietz.

The Palliser literacy team will be sharing with their colleagues the support and resources the school division offers its teachers in the area of literacy. The group, led by Associate Superintendent Pat Rivard, will also talk about some of the unique circumstances in Palliser that lead to success.

She says it all starts, however, with the singularity of focus of both the Palliser Board of Trustees and senior administration on literacy and that it is everyone’s job, from the superintendent to maintenance staff.

The importance of literacy hit home for Gietz recently when she heard of adults who couldn’t vote in the federal election because they couldn’t read, and thus didn’t know how to vote.

“Literacy is the key,” she says. “If you are high in literacy and high in numeracy you can engage with school and school is a positive place because you ‘get it,’ because you speak that language. And that allows you to become an ethical, engaged and entrepreneurial student and citizen of society.”

Palliser’s centralized philosophy of school management also plays a role. With school administrators leading the way and sharing ideas through annual literacy symposiums, silos aren’t created where one school does well in literacy because it’s a priority for its principal and another suffers because it isn’t, says Gietz

The fact all the literacy assessment data from across the division is gathered in one place and analyzed with the bigger picture in mind also helps, she says.

“I think that is one of the reasons why literacy has taken a stronghold here, because the data comes to a central location, there is a team set of eyes on it, and we can offer more support for the people that need it,” Gietz says.

Palliser’s literacy coach, Bev Smith, will explain her role at the summit. Among her duties is providing “elbow-to-elbow” coaching with teachers who need additional support and resources.  She also offers training in the latest literacy assessment practices, staff workshops, and meets with parents to explain the importance of reading.

Among the other Palliser presenters at the literacy summit will be Laurie Wilson, Director of Learning in charge of the Academic Wrap-Around Team. These Central Office staff members, with expertise in inclusive education, literacy and technology integration, help brainstorm with teachers who have run out of answers when dealing a student who isn’t progressing to their full potential.

“We know teachers are busy and we know teachers are doing good stuff already and we don’t want to overwhelm them by trying to add one more thing on their plate. The team may have some ideas of what a teacher might do differently, and perhaps something else that can be taken off their plate to allow them to help that student,” Gietz says.

The team’s work often benefits the division as a whole, as a strategy devised for one student will often work for many more.

Rounding out the Palliser presentation will be Co-ordinating Principal of Early Learning Nathan Sillito, who will share efforts to create a literacy culture for the youngest Palliser learners from the time they first enter the school system.

To learn more about literacy efforts in Palliser Regional Schools, visit our website at