Board makes ‘strategic investment’ for literacy

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

Implementing new literacy curriculum at all of its elementary schools this year has not been without challenges in Anoka-Hennepin.

To help facilitate a smooth transition to the new curriculum, the School Board Nov. 28 approved a one-time investment of $2.5 million to add 26 full-time equivalent positions for English language arts intervention support the next two years.

In response to slipping third-grade reading Minnesota Common Assessment scores, the district conducted its first comprehensive English language arts review in 15 years last school year.

Third-grade reading proficiency has a strong correlation to success in high school and beyond, and though MCA scores increased slightly in 2016, 41 percent of third-grade students are still reading below grade level.

The district approved a new curriculum – Reading Wonders by McGraw-Hill – for all kindergarten through fifth-grade students back in March and rolled it out across elementary schools this fall.

“There’s some really positive strengths in the curriculum that has been implemented,” said Mary Wolverton, associate superintendent for elementary schools.

Among those noted by staff are grammar, phonics and writing components, Wolverton shared in a presentation at the most recent School Board meeting Nov. 28. Digital components that allow for differentiated instruction have also been praised.

But the curriculum is still new to teachers, and it’s extremely rigorous, Wolverton said.

“The staff are reporting that they are struggling to find balance between whole-group instruction and small-group instruction,” she said. “Staff are struggling to find time as well as supports to provide necessary tiered interventions.”

The district had planned to review the need for additional support as a 2017 strategic priority, but after feedback, administration requested an accelerated time line to add full-time equivalent positions yet this year.

The School Board unanimously approved a strategic investment to add 17 FTE this year and a total of 26 FTE in fiscal year 2018. That equates to an additional FTE of support for every 650 K-5 students with fewer FTE allocated in 2017 with only two trimesters remaining.

Money will come from the fund balance reserve, which sits safely above 10 percent of annual expenditures even after the withdrawal, Chief Financial Officer Michelle Vargas said.

Though policy requires the fund balance stay above 5 percent, Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann likes to see that stay above 10 percent so the district has more stability in its financial planning, he said.

Administrators asked for one-time money because the need for interventions should wane as teachers become familiar with the curriculum and students reap its benefits, Wolverton said.

“It looks like a good plan,” Heidemann said.

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