Superintendent Megan Van Fossan is trying something new to address low academic achievement: using a game-based early literacy assessment.
Van Fossan, who is in the first year of leading the Sto-Rox school district near Pittsburgh, is facing a challenging road ahead: 96 percent of students in the 1,170-student district are on the federal free or reduced-price meals program, and the school system is struggling financially and academically.
“When I came in, I wasn’t looking for an early win, I wasn’t looking for quick fixes. I wanted a long-term solution,” she said.
In an interview with Education Week, Van Fossan explained why ensuring students have a good foundation of reading skills is vital to turn her district in a better direction and how technology and social-emotional learning can help achieve that goal.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What are your biggest priorities for the district?
Our kids live in poverty, they have significant trauma, and then add that third layer of the pandemic. We have to start with having a really good foundation—that starts with reading, which led us to strategic partnerships: One with EarlyBird, because we wanted to screen every kid when they walked in the door in kindergarten and really start to use data effectively every single day to drive our instructional design for the kids. The second partnership is with the [AIM Institute], ensuring every educator in the entire school district that taught reading was trained on the science of reading. So, for me, I want strong foundations. You can’t build a house on sand and think it’s gonna stand the test of time.
The second piece of that puzzle is the social-emotional learning of kids. This is an underserved community. There’s not enough mental health experts—we can’t hire 1,000 social workers. While we do have some school counselors and social workers, we’re also trying to figure out strategic partnerships on platforms that have SEL lessons and modules, and helping our teachers so that they’re trauma-informed.
If we can do both of these things well, our kids have a better chance of picking their path when they graduate from high school.
What made you want to focus specifically on reading?
It’s the foundation of all the academics. If I can get them to read, they will be much more successful in mathematics, in science, in social studies, in arts.
I’ve been an educator for over 25 years and the reality is if kids can’t read by third grade, that battle is an uphill battle. We cannot wait until the end of second grade. We should know every single month where every single child is in kindergarten and first grade. If we’re not closing that achievement gap, we have to own it and we have to figure out why that is, and we need to get really good, strong interventions in place.
How does EarlyBird work?
Across the country, the most prevalent screener is DIBELS, and we are using DIBELS for grades two to six. But we are using EarlyBird for kindergarten and first, because EarlyBird has only been developed that far.
Pip is the character and it’s a game that the kids play. What is so nice about this is it keeps kids’ interest. The kids are saying things into the app, and it’s actually scoring that information. If I’m a classroom teacher, I have all my kids that are already populated on it. My kids take their test, but they don’t know it’s a test because they’re playing with Pip and all the animals. As the teacher, at the end of that screening, I have all my kids’ scores, and then they’re actually grouped [based on their reading level].
What are the biggest challenges with implementing this technology?
A couple of things that I would recommend for any school district that’s going to go down this road is one: making sure that your technology folks are ready.
The second thing I would tell you is if you have older teachers that do not know how to use technology well, then you need to start with building some basic skills of those teachers.
The other piece of our struggle has been we do not have good, consistent internet. As much as I would love to wave my magic wand and get it to work, it just doesn’t. That’s one of the things we want to invest in.
Why use technology to help with addressing literacy problems?
I can’t imagine doing this work without technology. I’m an old dinosaur. I remember when we actually did DIBELS without tablets: You pulled the kid out, showed them the passage, you counted all the errors, and you had your stopwatch. Holy moly. It took us two to three weeks to screen 180 kindergarteners. Literally, I could do it in three days now.
AI technology is a game changer. Now I know my data is accurate. The teacher can’t manipulate that data. And it’s not that educators necessarily do it on purpose, but ‘Oh, I know they know what that word is,’ or ‘Oh, they can read faster. I’ll just let them read that passage one more time. They must’ve gotten nervous.’ That’s not how assessments work. We have better data today than we have ever had on kids.