Jenifer Davis, lead literacy coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools, spoke about the Extending the Bridges of Literacy program at Thursday's School Board meeting. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
On Thursday, the Charlottesville City School Board identified strengths and room for significant improvement in the initial results of a new after-school literacy program.
Charlottesville’s Extending the Bridges of Literacy program was introduced last September following a full year of planning. The program ran from September until the beginning of spring break in late April.
Last year EBL enrolled 270 students behind grade level in reading, all of whom were recommended by their teachers. It serves students in Charlottesville’s six K-4 elementary schools and fifth graders at Walker Upper Elementary.
EBL is designed to increase students’ self-confidence in their reading and writing skills while encouraging them to explore topics of personal interest. Last year students completed a variety of hands-on activities, like writing recipes and making origami art after reading about its history.
“There is a real push in schools today for project-based learning, and we really expanded on that piece,” said Jenifer Davis, lead literacy coordinator for the city schools. “When we asked students for feedback, the projects were what they remembered.”
EBL participants spent 4.5 hours in the program each week, adding up to the equivalent of 27 school days by the end of the year. Sixty staff members across the seven schools were involved in the program, including teachers, instructional assistants and nurses.
On Thursday, Davis shared standardized test data from the program’s first year with the School Board.
“All of this is a reflective process,” Davis added. “Last year was a great starting point, and we will get better this year.”
EBL students in the first, second and third grades showed improvement on Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening tests at the end of the year. The largest gains were seen among third graders; 53 percent of the cohort passed the test this spring, while only 35 percent of these students had passed in 2016.
Fifty-eight percent of the fourth-grade EBL cohort passed the Reading SOL test this spring, including 15 students who did not pass the previous year’s Reading test. The pass rate for the third-grade cohort was 48 percent.
Only three of 15 fifth-grade students in EBL program at Walker Upper Elementary passed the reading SOL this spring. However, another five came within one or two questions of passing.
“Although they didn’t hit that benchmark, the amount of progress we saw over time was notable,” Davis said. “To be within striking distance, I thought, was quite good.”
Davis said some of the most useful insights about the program’s first year could be drawn from classroom-level data.
“There were pockets of excellence where, for whatever reason, these teachers really made a lot of difference,” she said. “I’d like to analyze that, and speak with those teachers… We want to replicate that.”
Attendance at Walker’s EBL program was 68 percent, while attendance at K-4 elementary schools ranged from 84 to 92 percent. Davis said Walker’s after-school clubs and other extracurricular activities likely contributed to the lower attendance.
Jim Henderson, Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, said research has shown after-school academic interventions tend to be less effective for students in fourth grade through middle school.
“The research doesn’t favor a great deal of catching up,” Henderson said. “By really working with the fourth grade, and connecting that to the fifth grade, we have a better chance of getting these students where they need to be in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.”
Davis also shared comments about the program that were submitted anonymously by students and teachers.
One teacher said the EBL program could be improved by enrolling more students who were “on the bubble” of reaching proficiency on the Reading SOL, instead of those who are even further behind. The teacher also said targeting this group of students would reduce the amount of behavioral difficulties seen in EBL classrooms.
School Board member Ned Michie said he would not endorse this approach.
“The program was originally set up for kids who were struggling the most, the idea being that you need to give them more [instructional] time,” said Michie. “I know that [helping students on the bubble] would be a good feeling… but you’ve got kids who need even more help.”
“We have a lot of other resources going to the ‘bubble kids’, as well,” said School Board member Jennifer McKeever.
Superintendent Rosa Atkins said long-term improvement in literacy skills and personal enjoyment of reading were the main intent of the EBL program— not immediate results on standardized tests.
“What we really want to do is to start stacking on additional skills that will make them more proficient as they go through school,” Atkins said.
EBL is funded by a $239,740 annual Extended Learning Grant from the Virginia Department of Education. Charlottesville City Schools has contributed an additional $59,935 for the program each year.
The Extended Learning Grant was first awarded to Charlottesville in 2015 and was renewed in 2016.  While the grant’s status for the coming school year is still pending, Davis said she expected the VDOE would soon renew it.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.