In bid to boost Colorado reading scores, small program shows promise where larger efforts failed

A young girl wearing a pink shirt and protective mask reads a book while her teacher, a woman wearing a face shield and mask, looks over her shoulder in a classroom.
Leaders at several schools that have received Early Literacy Grants praise the program for being comprehensive and holding schools accountable for results. (John Moore / Getty Images)

Nearly a decade ago, Colorado lawmakers passed a splashy new reading law that sent tens of millions of dollars a year to school districts statewide to help struggling readers. 

The money paid for summer school, full-day kindergarten, and tutoring programs for students in kindergarten through third grade, but those efforts barely made a dent in Colorado’s dismal passing rates on third-grade literacy tests or the percentage of students seriously behind in reading. 

Something else came out of the 2012 reading law that produced more promising results: a competitive grant program with three-year awards for schools that agreed to overhaul reading instruction. Unlike the reading money spread across all districts, the smaller Early Literacy Grant program came with strict rules about how schools should improve reading instruction, plus considerable state oversight. 

Overall, participating schools did improve — with some schools making huge gains and others improving modestly, while a few made no improvement.

But in a local control state where inconsistent approaches have complicated efforts to boost reading achievement, the grant program points to the benefits of whole-school reform and strong guardrails on spending. 

Educators at some grant schools say the program was transformational, creating a cohesive system for teaching all students how to read and helping those who struggle.

“It is probably the best thing that ever happened at this school,” said Lisa Fillo, principal at Remington Elementary in Colorado Springs.  

The school’s third-graders made big gains on state literacy tests over the course of the grant, moving from 36% proficient in 2016 to 55% by 2019. The school’s share of K-3 students with serious reading deficits decreased to 10% from 13%.

“Our school was very flat, very comfortable with reading techniques that our teachers were teaching” before receiving the grant, Fillo said. “There was no specific curriculum for intervention; everyone [was] kind of doing their thing. It wasn’t structured, science-based reading instruction.”

From Englewood to Lamar, other school leaders agree, and many have sought additional grant funding or district dollars to preserve initiatives begun during the grant. 

Despite gains at many Early Literacy Grant schools and enthusiasm from school leaders, the program has been a minor player in Colorado’s bid to help children read better. The program has doled out $5 million to $7.5 million annually and accepts a new crop of 20 to 30 schools every other year on average. It’s touched only about 10% of Colorado elementary schools over its eight-year history.

In contrast, Colorado’s primary effort to help struggling readers, which awards every district and charter school money based on their number of struggling K-3 readers, typically distributes $26 million to $33 million a year. Until last year, districts had wide latitude on spending those dollars — with some using the funding to buy discredited reading programs or items that have little to do with reading instruction, such as tote bags or lip balm.

Of a dozen educators and administrators Chalkbeat interviewed about Early Literacy Grants, most said scaling up the program could make a big difference.

“I 100% believe it would make a positive impact on reading scores,” said Brenda Nardo, one of about a dozen consultants approved by the state education department to work with grant schools. “However, I also wholeheartedly believe schools have to be on board or they will not have successful implementation.” 

The science of reading

So far, about 90 Colorado schools have gone all or most of the way through the grant program, which now runs for four years. A new group of 32 schools starts this year. At most grant schools, more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. 

The grant’s guiding principle is that reading should be taught based on the science of reading: the large body of research on how children learn to read. Participating schools must use state-approved curriculum materials and consultants, and are graded on their progress up to three times a year. 

Consultants typically visit grant schools once or twice a month, helping school leaders craft daily literacy schedules, plan teacher training, select reading materials, and act on assessment data. Grant money can also pay for new reading curriculum or coaches who work directly with teachers. 

Consultants and school leaders say they often saw teachers using ineffective practices before the grant. These might include improperly grouping children for extra help, having students read aloud from a common book or passage one after another, or using “rainbow writing” — copying words with different colored crayons. (Round-robin reading doesn’t provide children enough practice and stigmatizes poor readers. Rainbow writing puts the child’s focus on colors instead of letters and letter sounds.)

Educators who have participated in the grant program praise it for being comprehensive, creating a sense of urgency, and requiring schools to be accountable for results. 

Jenny Buster, principal at Clayton Elementary School in the Englewood district near Denver, said when she became principal after the school’s first year with the grant, Clayton hadn’t met any of its four literacy goals. 

“I had to sign a waiver that said I would do everything I could not to lose the grant,” she said. “Really, what the grant gave us [is] accountability.”

But school and district leaders also acknowledge that the grant program — like any major change — can be frustrating and overwhelming for teachers.

In the Cañon City district, the grant ushered in much-needed changes at several district schools, but was rushed through initially without much teacher input, said Kelli Jones, the district’s English Language Arts coordinator.

“Teachers in our district felt like this was done to them,” said Jones, who was a first grade teacher when the grant launched in 2016. 

Some now ask why they never learned techniques taught in grant-funded training in their teacher prep programs, she said. 

Fillo, of Remington Elementary, said that initially, some teachers bristled over feedback from an outside consultant. 

Fillo told them, “She’s here to make us better, she’s not here to be our friend.”

Nardo, who’s worked with more than a dozen grant schools, remembers some teachers calling her “that grant lady” early in the process. 

Jonice Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher at Washington Elementary in Cañon City, recalls the grant program starting during her second year on the job.

“At times, it’s annoying when you have a bunch of people coming into your room,” she said, but “they made it clear … it wasn’t to be critical of you.” 

Six years in, Sullivan said she better understands how to teach reading, including how to help kids break up words into sounds and syllables. For example, to help kids with a word like “mat,” she might do a “roller-coaster” exercise where students say the “m” sound in a low octave, climb to a higher octave for the “a,” and fall again for the “t” — moving their hands up and down in unison. 

State test scores don’t always improve

Even for grant schools that have faithfully made evidence-based changes to reading instruction, there’s not always a direct link to improved state test scores. For some schools, test score gains are obvious, but at others, growth fluctuates from year to year or appears in some grades but not others.

There are many reasons for that, including that state literacy tests combine reading and writing, making it hard to identify reading-specific gains. In addition, state tests don’t always reflect gains made by the readers who struggle the most — those with “significant reading deficiencies” in the state’s parlance. Such students may improve greatly but still fall short of the proficiency threshold on state tests.

“You’ve got to remember that there’s a long way between not having a significant reading deficiency and being at grade level,” said Floyd Cobb, executive director of teaching and learning at the Colorado Department of Education. 

“Ultimately, what we would want to be able to see is that [grant] schools … have greater success with moving students out of the significant reading deficiency realm,” he said. 

Among the first 30 schools to participate in the grant program, two-thirds began with higher rates of seriously struggling readers than the state overall, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. By the end of the program, nearly two-thirds of grant schools were doing better than the state average. A separate state analysis that included about 50 grant schools found similar trends.

Out of order

Some educators say one problem with state efforts to improve reading instruction is that in-depth teacher training didn’t come first.

In 2018, five years after the first round of Early Literacy Grants, the state began tougher enforcement of how teacher preparation programs teach reading. The next year, lawmakers passed legislation requiring all existing K-3 teachers to take state-approved training on reading instruction — the deadline is summer 2022.

“We put the cart before the horse,” said Jones, of the Cañon City district, referring to across-the-board teacher training coming so late. 

The leaders of the Structured Literacy Project, a small federally funded, state-run program that aims to improve K-3 reading, especially for the most struggling readers, share the same lament.

“What we can learn from both [programs] is that teacher knowledge is paramount,” said Ellen Hunter, who leads the project for the Colorado Department of Education. 

While many teachers implicitly understand the structure of the English language, they don’t know how to explicitly teach it to novice readers, she said. “The amount of training we had to do with our teachers to get them prepared to implement structured literacy has been incredible.”  

That’s part of the reason the [state’s 2012 reading law] has been “less than effective,” Hunter said. “We haven’t had teachers properly prepared.” 

Getting it to stick

Sustaining improvements made through Early Literacy Grants can be challenging, educators say, especially when there are leadership changes, high staff turnover, or other turmoil. 

That was borne out in Chalkbeat’s analysis, which showed that progress faded in the years after the grant — though not completely. 

Melody Ilk, a consultant who’s worked with 16 grant schools from Denver to Fairplay, said only one-third have had consistent principals throughout their grant terms. In a few cases, new superintendents or principals had different philosophical beliefs about how kids learn to read. 

As with almost any educational initiative, she said strong school leadership and district-level support are critical.

Leaders of the Structured Literacy Project said they had one principal whose school moved from the lowest school rating category to the highest in two years, largely because of better reading scores. 

“But that success said to the district, time to move that principal to a new school,” Hunter said, and scores went down the following year. 

Consultants with the Early Literacy Grant program say the state has gradually emphasized sustaining changes when the grant ends. Now, schools can receive up to five years of funding — four years during the grant term, plus a year-long “sustainability” grant.

Unfortunately, the disruptions of the pandemic have erased the progress that many grant schools made in recent years.

Buster, of Clayton Elementary, said before the pandemic, half of her kindergarteners were “blue” — the highest of four categories on a common reading assessment — by the middle of the year. A year later, the same percentage was “red,” the lowest category. 

“I felt like we were really making progress, then the pandemic hit,” she said. “We’re going to have to start fresh.”

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