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HOT SPRINGS -- Ten elementary schools were named Tuesday as 2019 R.I.S.E. Arkansas School Award winners for their multifaceted efforts to employ the science behind learning how to read to improve instruction to children.

R.I.S.E., which stands for Reading Initiative for Student Excellence, is a state-promoted program that was started in 2017. It provides principals and teachers with research-based strategies for teaching children phonics and other related reading skills, as well as creating an atmosphere in which reading is a celebrated activity among students, staff members and the community.

The honored schools are:

• Angie Grant Elementary School in the Benton School District.

• Hermitage Elementary School in the Hermitage School District.

• Florence Mattison Elementary School in the Conway School District.

• Green Forest Elementary School in the Green Forest School District.

• Lavaca Elementary School in the Lavaca School District.

• Lincoln Elementary School in the Lincoln School District.

• Malvern Elementary School in the Malvern School District.

• Sheridan Elementary School in the Sheridan School District.

• Taylor Elementary School in the Emerson-Taylor-Bradley School District.

• Willowbrook Elementary School in the Bentonville School District.

An Arkansas Department of Education team visited each of the schools that were nominated for the 2019 honor to select the 10 campuses that demonstrated schoolwide implementation of science of reading practices; administrative support for improved reading instruction; an emphasis on community partnerships; the use of projects that promote a culture of reading; and the ability to serve as models of instructional best practices for other teachers.

Representatives from the winning schools -- which received trophies -- shared their experiences in replacing the "whole language" and word memorization approach to teaching reading with a system focused more on phonics and decoding words at the Arkansas Department of Education's Summit on Tuesday in Hot Springs.

Rosalynda Ellis, principal at Hermitage Elementary, said her faculty was motivated to try the state initiative by data from four years ago that showed that the old system of reading instruction was not working because only 18 percent of the school's third-graders had satisfactory reading scores.

"It was not OK," Ellis said, adding that, "We have a core belief as a staff that reading is vital ... and if we are willing to die on that mountain, then we better make our actions match our words.

"We really challenged each other," she said about making the changes. Fifty-four percent of the school's sixth-graders -- those former third-graders -- are scoring at acceptable levels, Ellis said.

Gary Logan, principal at Conway's Mattison Elementary School, said his school put resources once reserved for remediation at third and fourth grades into the instruction in kindergarten and first grade -- to address learning deficiencies immediately and not wait to see if children would outgrow their problems.

Cindy Dewey, principal at Willowbrook Elementary in Bentonville, said there was some hesitation among her staff in giving up some of the old reading strategies that were seen as successful.

"But after seeing some success, they are all believers, and they all tell you that they will never ever go back," Dewey said about the new strategies. Knowing now about the science behind how the brain learns to read "it would be malpractice on our part not to do this for our kids," she said.

Sandy Shepherd, the lead R.I.S.E. specialist at the Arkansas Department of Education and moderator of the Tuesday session, acknowledged to the audience that letting go of old curriculum and going through the transition is hard and can cause weeping and gnashing of teeth. She said she doesn't want any school to burn down its book room and stop doing everything they have ever done.

"Every single training I go to, I say this: 'If everything you are doing is working for your bottom one-third of students, keep on doing it. If its only working for your top third, almost anything will work with those kids,'" she said. "It's hurtful ... but a large percentage of our kids learn to read despite how unhelpful our instruction was," Shepherd said.

NW News on 06/24/2019

Print Headline: Reading push means honors for 10 schools

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