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Unlocking the ABCs of Educational Achievement

The science of reading, parents as teachers, and other local education innovations: Akron Community Foundation supports cutting-edge programs across the cradle to career continuum
Young students smiling while completing a writing assignment
Tallmadge Elementary School students

By Chris Miller, Communications & Community Investment Officer

In a Tallmadge Elementary School classroom, the teacher leads first grade students in what at first appears to be choreography, with calls and responses tied to the syllables of displayed words, the sounds accompanied by matching hand signs and gestures. Throughout this lesson, the students are fully engaged – and they're learning to proficiently read at a young age as a result. This is a typical lesson of the phonics-based "science of reading," also known as structured literacy.

"The science of reading is essentially the study of how people learn to read and how the brain processes written language," said Courtney Davis, director of curriculum for Tallmadge City Schools. "It delves into various aspects such as how letters correspond to sounds, the structure of sounds in language, the structure of words, the arrangement of words in sentences, the meaning of words and sentences, and the use of language in context."

She equates structured literacy to building a house. "Each foundational skill is like a brick that contributes to the overall structure, and the science of reading is a toolbox filled with research-based strategies and techniques that educators can use to support student learning and achievement," Davis said.

Tallmadge's structured literacy curriculum is spearheaded by the University of Akron's Center for Structured Literacy, whose programs are supported by Akron Community Foundation's education-focused funding, with tangible results.

"These kids need to learn letters; kids need to learn sounds. And they need to have meaning attached to print," said Dr. Rebecca Tolson, director of the Center for Structured Literacy, who spoke at a recent Community Issues Session hosted by Akron Community Foundation. "(Structured literacy) is like a concert – all these parts of the brain working in concert. But a child who struggles, a child with dyslexia, their brain does not process in the same areas. So, it is neurobiological."

Indeed, structured literacy is a powerful tool that uses science to understand how the regions of the brain are affected when learning to read and process sounds and words. "Our students have become more confident in their ability to read, write and communicate effectively," Davis added. "Success in mastering foundational literacy skills has boosted their overall confidence and motivation to learn."

Cara Eyre, a first grade teacher at Tallmadge Elementary School, said, "Simply put, the science of reading is teaching the sounds of letters and groups of letters, as well as the rules that apply to how you pronounce each letter or group, so that those sounds can be blended together to read. The science of reading also includes vocabulary and comprehension skills, but the foundational skills needed to learn to read are the focus in first grade."

Eyre added that kinesthetic learning is also incorporated into phonics lessons by pairing letters with symbols and songs. "Each letter has not only a sound, but a symbol and jingle to go along with it," she said. "Our students love phonics and enjoy applying what they learn to every academic subject."

One challenge of teaching structured literacy, Eyre said, is finding interesting "decodable" books. "Books about 'a cat that sat on a mat' or 'a rat that saw a bat' are decodable but aren't very interesting," she said. "We not only want students to learn to read, but we also want them to love to read."

"When students can identify that the letters and sounds work together in systematic ways, reading becomes more automatic and successful," added Marissa Tipton, another first grade teacher at Tallmadge Elementary School. "The second tier of this type of instruction is to ensure students build vocabulary by introducing words systematically that include the skill we are working on in contexts that make meaningful connections. This change has helped develop foundational skills in action."

Preschool girl wearing a purple graduation cap and gown

Preparing for Kindergarten

Another innovative program in the local "cradle to career" continuum is Building for Tomorrow's Early Childhood Initiative, which helps parents living in Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority communities to become their children's first and most important teacher. Considering 90% of a child's brain develops by age 5, those early years are critical to mapping out a person's life.

The Early Childhood Initiative combines two programs as part of its home visitation model: Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) and Parents as Teachers. SPARK works with preschool-age children and their parents through lessons based on Ohio's Early Learning and Development Standards to prepare children for kindergarten and enhance parents' ability to teach. The Parents as Teachers program similarly equips parents to be their child's most important teacher, while also helping to prevent child abuse and neglect, detect early delays, and improve maternal and child health, among other benefits.

Erica Adkins, who has had two children in AMHA's Parents as Teachers and SPARK early childhood programs, said these programs have been crucial, especially when her oldest daughter, who's now 12, was a participant. "For my oldest, it was super important. She didn't go to day care or preschool, so that was the only structure she got."

Adkins said their current Parent Partner, who conducts home visits for AMHA and helps conduct lessons based on Ohio Learning Standards, has gone "over and above" for Adkins' 4-year-old, who's now in the program, whether it's connecting the family with services and resources or bringing over needed items like diapers or gift cards. "We can help families and connect them to resources in the community that they might not know are out there," said Courtney Vujas, a Parent Partner for the Adkins family, who has worked for AMHA for two years. "For Erica, we were able to get her youngest daughter some sensory processing services and get her linked to the school system."

"For families and parents, (early childhood programming) helps them feel more comfortable in their own parenting skills and being their child's teacher," Vujas added. "You're not given a handbook when you have a kid. There are a lot of people out there who don't have access to early childhood programs due to life situations – this gives them the same opportunity as others in their community."

Kindergartners from disadvantaged families are often at risk of beginning kindergarten behind their peers. Consequently, Akron Community Foundation's discretionary grants for AMHA's early childhood programs are among the foundation's largest each year. In fact, during the last year, ACF's funding supported home visitation and early learning services for more than 2,000 residents in Summit County, including 809 youth from birth to kindergarten, through the Parents as Teachers and SPARK Ohio programs.

According to a report from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the benefits of high-quality early care and education can last through middle school and high school. Early learning also has long-term advantages for individuals and for society, including higher educational attainment, better adult health, and less involvement in crime.

The Critical After-School Hours

After-school hours are crucial for students, as these hours are often when they engage in the riskiest behaviors.

"When I saw the statistic that children spend 80% of their waking hours outside of the school day, it was a huge eye-opening moment for me. There's a lot of untapped potential for us to really help shape our kids and give them great experiences to help them grow and achieve," said Rachel Tecca, executive director of Youth Success Summit.

Youth Success Summit supports the area's Out-of-School Time providers by offering educational tools and resources for both program providers and students. Their recent quarterly meeting brought more than 60 organizations to the table.

Tecca, who also presented at Akron Community Foundation's education-themed Community Issues Session earlier this year, said the hours between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. are "prime time for juvenile crime." She asked: "What are kids doing to keep themselves engaged and productive during that time?"

For every child in an after-school program, three more are waiting to get in, leaving 7.7 million children alone and unsupervised during after-school hours, according to the Afterschool Alliance's "America After 3PM" report, which adds that students spend an average of 5.6 hours per week in afterschool programs. Additionally, the report notes that cost, access and availability are the biggest barriers nationally to participation in after-school programs. The report concludes that 78% of parents with a child in an after-school program believe that the program helps them keep their job, and 83% agree that after-school programs provide peace of mind.


Teacher and students doing an interactive learning exercise
Tallmadge Elementary School students

Implementing new programs like structured literacy can be challenging and resource-intensive, but the results have paid off in dividends, according to Tallmadge teachers and administrators.

"We have seen significant improvements in literacy outcomes for our students," said Davis, the district's director of curriculum. "This includes higher reading proficiency levels, improved spelling and writing skills, and increased confidence among our students. Another benefit has been parent engagement. Our parents are enthusiastic about structured literacy instruction because they see tangible improvements in their child's reading, writing and spelling abilities."

Beyond the classroom, the benefits of structured literacy instruction can have a lifelong impact on students' academic and professional success. "By equipping our students with strong foundational literacy skills, we lay the groundwork for future learning and achievement in all areas of life," Davis said.

Eyre, who's part of the first grade teaching team at Tallmadge City Schools, said, "Our students are definitely growing and progressing in their knowledge and understanding, and this year we saw tremendous growth."

Eyre noted that at the beginning of the school year, 41% of first grade students scored at or above the benchmark score on the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessment. By the end of the year, 64% of students scored at or above the benchmark.

Beginning this fall at the University of Akron, teaching students will be able to be dual certified, so that when they earn their bachelor's degree, they may also graduate with certifications as a structured literacy interventionist. Tolson, who leads the university's Center for Structured Literacy, said demand for structured literacy programming is expected to increase in Ohio as a result of a new law that requires schools to screen for dyslexia in grades K-3. Outside of nonprofits and schools, other community partners are also prioritizing early childhood education, including the City of Akron, which plans to invest in universal pre-kindergarten as part of its Learning Together plan.

"Early childhood education not only improves social-emotional learning and literacy, but it also addresses parental employment constraints," said Richelle Wardell, education and health strategist for the City of Akron. "So, remember this: Investing in early childhood helps both the workforce of today and the workforce of tomorrow."

Another aspect of the city's Learning Together plan, added Wardell, is making better use of Akron Public Schools' community learning centers. "Picture this: after-school programs, mentoring, summer job opportunities, health services, legal clinics, and adult education – all under one roof seamlessly and in a manner that we are all doing it together for the betterment of our community," Wardell said.

Investing in education programs is key to enhancing our community, regardless of which part of the continuum is addressed. Issues like public safety and economic development are tied to the support of our young people, one of our community's most valuable assets.

To learn more about the education programs supported by Akron Community Foundation, visit

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