By Whitney Stein
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old adage goes, and two years ago, Charlotte found itself facing a crisis in which intervention was necessary from all angles.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on education was immediate. Schools were closed, and families and educators faced real challenges in remote learning. At Read Charlotte, we didn’t know then what we do now: that the pandemic would be an equal opportunity destroyer of early literacy, affecting children across racial and socioeconomic groups and in every corner of Mecklenburg County. But we suspected. And we knew we had to act.
The necessity was there, and the invention had been underway for some time – 13 years, to be exact, all the way across the country in California. Munro Richardson, Read Charlotte’s executive director, had been following California-based Dr. Carol Connor’s research on effective reading instruction since 2017, and liked what he saw.
“We have lots of good information about how children learn to read in general,” Richardson said. “But Dr. Connor figured out how to help adults meet the specific needs of the child right in front of them. She discovered and empirically demonstrated a number of game-changing insights for how to improve reading outcomes.”
That research, after 13 years of rigorous testing and development, and millions of dollars of investment by the U.S. Department of Education, eventually became the patented A2i (Assessment-to-Instruction) platform and was brought to market by Learning Ovations, a company created by Connor and her husband, Jay. At that point, Read Charlotte, well familiar with the research backing it, was eager to see A2i applied here at home.
“And then the pandemic hit, and we saw this huge opportunity and void for family supports. And the fact that this research was so strong certainly made Read Charlotte want to dig in and bring this to families, into the home,” said Kate Bradstreet, Read Charlotte’s early literacy manager. “Not only because of the pandemic, but also because we know how important family support is around literacy.”
Read Charlotte worked with Learning Ovations to bring the power of A2i to Mecklenburg County with Reading Checkup, a free online tool that tells families their PreK-3rd grade child’s reading level and provides individualized reading plans to help children advance. As that project progressed (more than 4,400 Reading Checkups have been completed since the tool was rolled out in 2020), the wheels of invention kept turning. The team began to think about using A2i in after school settings, realizing there was an unfilled need there that A2i was adaptable enough to meet.
“These algorithms fit. They’re always constant. It’s a matter of, what setting are you now using them in?” Bradstreet said.
Learning Ovations was open to creating a new platform to serve after school partners, and so by spring of 2021, the work to develop A2i After School was in full swing. Bradstreet said it was important to create a model that would be a good fit for the after school environment.
“We know that after school is not the classroom,” she said. “They’ve already had a full day of school, and we have to keep in mind that after school is in addition to that. One thing we love about A2i is that a program, if they value outside time and homework help, and they have snack time, how do they pair that with literacy? That’s something that A2i can fit into.”
By the summer, conversations were underway with potential partners in the Charlotte community. Many of them were hungry for ways to help their students catch up after many months of COVID-related interruptions.
“I’m always looking for ways to improve our programming and our curriculum,” said Bronica Glover, executive director of Greater Enrichment Program. “I’m always looking for opportunities to grow our students, and opportunities to support their learning.”
GEP has been serving Charlotte students for 40-plus years, but the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic was a first.
“They were so excited to be back in school, but we saw that they did not read while they were home, and they lost a lot,” Glover said. “Some kids didn’t, but we saw across the board that the students were really behind.”
A2i helps answer the question of how to address that loss, which differs for each student. One of the things that sets A2i apart is that it’s actionable, said Madison Brown, Read Charlotte’s project manager and a former teacher. Data typically tells you where a student is with reading skills, but not what to do with that information.
“As a teacher, I knew kids needed different amounts of different things, but I had to go through a trial-and-error process to figure that out, which could take the whole year to really get it right. So A2i, when I saw it, it solved a problem for me, because it’s telling me right away what I needed to do differently,” Brown said.
A2i After School uses assessments, or short quizzes, to determine a child’s current reading level and which and how much of the four types of reading instruction they need. The platform provides a range of activities tailored to each type that teachers can use to provide the appropriate amount of instruction. Every seven weeks, students are reassessed to gauge their progress. Read Charlotte provides support throughout, with training, troubleshooting, and feedback.
Brown likens the process to teaching a child to ride a bicycle. The same skills are required for everyone: pedaling, balancing, braking. But the way you teach those skills to each child differs, based on that particular child’s needs.
“I think about A2i in the same way,” Brown said. “Ultimately, our kids all need the same set of skills for reading. They need phonics, fluency, comprehension; but how you teach them and how much they need of each type is going to be different for each kid. Instead of trying to figure that out the hard way, A2i is telling you exactly what they need.”
Knowing what students need can empower teachers to help move them forward, faster.
“What I like about A2i is getting the insight to seeing where students actually are,” said Nicole Richardson, GEP’s director of academic services. “I think that has been very helpful to us and very surprising to our staff, because when we’re doing certain activities with them, and we’re looking at their writing skills or wondering why a student might have a little bit of challenge with reading, by doing A2i we were able to see where the student currently was, and how we could best help them.”
GEP operates at five sites and currently uses A2i at two. Glover hopes to expand it into all five of their locations in the future.
Now, a year into A2i After School, expansion is top of mind for Read Charlotte, too. Bradstreet and Brown hope to see the program grow, so that more children have access to high-quality, impactful tutoring.
“One thing I’ve loved about working with these after school providers is that they love the work that they do,” Bradstreet said. “They see the strength of the families and students they serve, and they see this really great opportunity that they have to work with the students and also with the families, and they also see these kids that they care about struggling in literacy, and they want to do something. And A2i allows them to not only have the information they need, it also provides the tools with which to do something about it. And they can feel confident, because of the research, that they are doing something that will matter, and will make an impact.”