Kindra Smith, principal of Riverwood International Charter High School, told the Fulton County Board of Education that a literacy training program for teachers and academic leaders is a step in the right direction.

Smith was one of three principals from Fulton County to share thoughts about the school district’s plan to train teachers and principals through the Literacy Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS).

Kindra Smith

Superintendent of Schools Mike Looney called LETRS one of the largest, most significant educational movements impacting Fulton County Schools in recent history.

Smith said the school in Sandy Springs has 27% of its current ninth-grade students one or more grade levels behind in the area of ELA (English Language Arts). These same students had reading difficulties at the elementary and middle school levels, Smith said.

She has experience at all three levels of schools, having taught first grade for eight years at Crabapple Crossing Elementary, serving as principal of Roswell North Elementary for five years, principal of Elkins Point Middle School for four years, and principal of Riverwood for three years.

“The single most important aspect of all of these experiences at the different levels is student learning and knowing how to read,” Smith said.

No grade level is attached to students who have little to no confidence in science and social studies because they lack foundational skills and vocabulary development taught through LETRS, she said.

She called it a systemic issue that must be addressed with a K-12 system solution. Teachers of students who have learning deficits need access to LETRS training. She advised providing it at a pace and cadence that allows them to digest the learning.

“I also feel strongly that those individual teachers should be compensated along the way to ensure that they know that there’s value to the school and district, and ultimately to the student who learns how to truly read and flourish in the area of literacy under their critical guidance,” Smith said.

Matt Vance, principal of Medlock Bridge Elementary, said that LETRS is a thorough review of the latest scientific research on how children’s brains process language to read letters. It also makes clear recommendations of what, when, and how language skills should be taught, along with how to assess them, and how to differentiate instruction and plan interventions to address needs.

Lauren Malekebu, principal of Haynes Bridge Middle School, said she could still remember in her first year of teaching when she asked her principal how she could know if her students were learning to read.

“She was a great leader, yet she was not able to provide me with an answer,” she said.

It was not until 2003 when she had training similar to LETRS in Florida, which helped her gain the tools and knowledge necessary to ensure her students would not fall through the cracks. That helped move her school from a “D” grade to an “A”, she said.

When she got to Haynes Bridge Middle School in 2011, she had an eighth-grade student whose oral reading fluency was only 56 words per minute. Putting a literacy plan in place brought her to 125 words per minute.

“Even though this was still below the eighth-grade fluency expectation, she was now able to get through a passage without struggling with every other word. I think about her often with the work I do now. What if I didn’t have the early literacy knowledge that I had? What would that have meant for her in high school and beyond?” she said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.