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Superintendent Jo Welter: Leading to Literacy

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Jo Welter grew up with teaching in her blood. Her father was an educator. So were both her older siblings.

Her strong desire to help students led her to become a building principal for 12 years, then an assistant superintendent for eight, before stepping into the role of superintendent for Western Pennsylvania’s Ambridge Area School District.

But Jo gradually became aware of a systemic problem in her district. And this problem centered on what wasn’t occurring in classrooms.

“My frustration was teachers had extraordinary difficulties with differentiating instruction. Please know this was NOT for lack of caring or wanting to do their best. It had to do with the system they were following.”

To Jo, the teachers were relying too hard on group reading instruction, a “one-size-fits-all” classroom teaching type. Jo felt small group and direct instruction, tailored to each student’s individual needs, would be more effective. It was difficult, however, to get buy-in to move in this direction.

“I knew people could do better and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough as an administrator to get them there,” Jo explains.

There is a proven methodology available to effectively teach our kids to read. The science is in and literacy experts have fully embraced it. Unfortunately, most district decision makers haven’t, and the results demonstrate it.

“The majority of classrooms I entered had whole group instruction." Jo says. "It was Round Robin reading. So, 24 children sat quietly, not paying attention, while one student read aloud.”

This lack of engagement amongst the students resulted in kids exhibiting behavioral issues a dismayed Jo witnessed for herself.

“Kids refused to do work — because it wasn't differentiated and they couldn't do it. There was acting out. Just a lot of giving up. Not finishing assignments, not coming to school. Disruptive behaviors often occurred in the classroom because it's easier to get attention this way than to let anybody know ‘I can't do the work.’ Again and again, I observed a lot of shutting down, heads on tables, and worst of all, complete classroom disengagement.”

Despite these alarm bells ringing in nearly every K-3 classroom, Jo found it hard to move the literacy needle from a systemic standpoint.

But Jo knew something had to change. Yes, there was extreme pressure from her school board to raise literacy scores, but more importantly, at a root level, she knew her district was failing its kids, which was not in any way acceptable.

What most frustrated Jo was the solution to her dilemma was out there. In plain sight. In the words of Education Week, “Research has documented what works to get kids to read, yet those evidence-based reading practices appear to be missing from most classrooms.”

So, how could Jo implement those practices and make them stick? How could she take her teachers beyond a historical teaching model which simply didn’t deliver?

Most literacy educational investments fall short because they are inserted into an antiquated process or lack a robust base of top-to-bottom support. Yet, Learning Ovations has seen its greatest successes working with districts to support overall system-wide literacy. It was just what Jo Welter needed.

What’s revolutionary about Learning Ovations’ approach is that it uses abundant data that no single human — or group of humans — could ever amass, much less study, to determine an individualistic approach to each student in the class.

A good way to understand this concept is to consider a scenario in which you have five third graders in a classroom. One advanced kid may be reading Harry Potter, two other kids may have average reading skills, and the other two may have no familiarity at all with books.

These two struggling students may not even know their letters, much less how to read. Yet, the present classroom structure would teach all these kids the same. What individualized instruction delivers to the fifth child that doesn’t even know their letters is a whole set of support activities and curriculum choices that would be helpful to them, but not needed for the other three children, much less the individual reading Harry Potter.

Learning Ovations’ innovative A2i platform makes it possible for teachers to individualize lessons without increasing their workload. The platform provides:

  • Quick assessments and progress tracking for each student. 

  • An easy-to-use dashboard designed to help teachers organize personalized student reading instruction and reinforcement into teacher-guided and student-supported learning.

  • A teacher-focused classroom structure for small group instruction based on individual requirements, while also being sensitive to children’s social and emotional needs.

  • Support for teachers’ existing materials, including specific lesson suggestions for those materials utilizing the A2i system. (This helps teachers maximize resources they are already familiar with, as well as providing additional and complementary materials. There is NO need to purchase new student materials.)

Jo Welters is one of those who has seen amazing outcomes occur before her eyes. “I was leery about taking on a new partner,” she says. “But Learning Ovations presented their solution and the teachers embraced it. I’ve been in education 35 years. I've been an administrator for at least 25. And yet I have never seen a group of teachers take on something new like this with so much commitment. Never! They loved the third-party support — how Learning Ovations showed them how to do things, worked with them in the classroom setting, and emailed them on a daily basis. In fact, one individual told me, ‘I haven’t been this excited about teaching in 20 years.’”

Still, the biggest hurdle was changing the prevailing educational mindset. For too long, experts believed reading to be an automatic skill every child possessed — something that just needed to be developed.

The reality is reading is not a natural function. The brain must learn how to “decode” words on a page to make sense of them. According to the National Reading Panel, there are 3 elements to literacy success:

  • Instruction must be based on each student’s individual needs.

  • Because reading isn’t a naturally occurring ability, instruction must be explicit and systematic.

  • The optimum learning environment brings students with similar needs to together to learn in small groups in heterogeneous classrooms.

Evidence of the profound progress gained from Learning Ovations’ A2i system is far from anecdotal. Dramatic improvements have been replicated in school districts across the country. And the good news is, this kind of systematic transformation is within reach of any school.

Just ask Jo.

Much to her delight, this pioneering superintendent discovered how possible it was to create a new norm of achievement in her own district. “It was phenomenal! At our State Street school, two kindergarten and first grade classrooms accomplished over a year's worth of progress in both age and grade equivalency.”

According to Jo, two first grade teachers at Highland also made over two years’ worth of growth. “We call them our rock stars. I can't believe the results. In one year’s, time, every teacher provided with this training has been able to implement it with fidelity.”

Jo’s advice?

“I would absolutely recommend Learning Ovations to everyone,” she says. “Even if you're in a high performing school district this program will push your highflyers. Moreover, to get this much professional development amongst so many teachers in such a hands-on fashion… well, it's worth every penny.”

To learn more about a Learning Ovations partnership email:

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