Adina Thomas perched on a chair before her kindergarten class one morning in May, her students squiggling cross-legged on a colorful carpet.
“Plug!” she said.
The kids lifted their hands together in a prayer position pointing forward. “P-, l-, uh, g-,” they said in unison, chopping their hands downward with each sound, then swinging them like a baseball bat as they blended the sounds together: “Plug!” As they repeated the exercise with more words — “spray,” “slip,” “group” — the students beamed with confidence.
Thomas, a teacher at the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury, is on the front lines of a reading revolution in Boston Public Schools. After years of dismally low reading scores — only 32 percent of third-graders scored proficient on last spring’s English-language arts MCAS test, and about 20 percent of Black and Latino third-graders did — the state’s largest school system is making a dramatic shift toward “structured literacy,” instruction that draws on a body of research, known as “the science of reading,” about how the human brain learns to read.
The district’s “Equitable Literacy” program puts a heavy focus on phonics, to help kids sound out words, and knowledge-building, to help them understand what they read. It also aims to eliminate discredited strategies — like teaching early readers to guess at unfamiliar words using pictures or context clues instead of sounding out — that have permeated American reading instruction for decades.
BPS leaders realized the district needed “a fundamental shift in how we teach reading — because it’s not working,” said Christine Cronin, the district’s executive director of professional learning.
Boston’s overhaul, which comes at an especially critical time as educators try to help kids recover from the pandemic, is part of a movement that many schools across the country are navigating. But in Massachusetts, progress has been slower than in many other states.
Crucially, Boston is making the shift citywide, a massive challenge in a district that has long given each school, and even classroom teachers, broad autonomy to teach as they see fit.
Superintendent Mary Skipper vowed the district will see better results for kids because it has made a commitment to the new approach for the long haul.
“Equitable Literacy is going to be here for a long time,” Skipper said. “We’re not going to do what’s been done in the past, which is announce something, and then the following year, announce something different.”
Already the shift is winning applause from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which in an otherwise critical review of the district last year, praised Equitable Literacy as a bright spot in BPS that marked “the first time in recent memory that BPS has adopted a unifying academic initiative.”
The state has even awarded the district a contract to train educators across Massachusetts this year on play-based learning, featuring BPS’s homegrown literacy curriculum, Focus on Early Childhood, which includes activities like reading about construction alongside sand play, or reading about owls, and then dissecting their pellets.
BPS has spent more than $8.25 million on Equitable Literacy since 2022, officials said, and at least $600,000 since 2021 on training early elementary teachers in the science of reading.
It’s early, but BPS reports promising internal results so far: The proportion of kindergartners meeting grade-level benchmarks in phonics and phonological awareness rose last spring to 73 percent and 67 percent, respectively, from 69 percent and 62 percent in spring 2022.
In 2018, the district briefly mulled scrapping Focus for an off-the-shelf curriculum, but instead decided to improve Focus because of research showing it was narrowing racial gaps in vocabulary, and because other curriculums didn’t reflect BPS’s diversity. The district consulted with experts, made sure the lessons covered the state’s English, science, and social studies standards, and created “decodable” books that allowed kids to practice sounding out words featuring diverse characters in Boston and beyond — like “Yousef at the Arboretum.”
The books “center Boston families and Boston kids,” said Brooke Childs, director of early literacy. “Children learn when they’re able to contextualize it in the place where they live.”
The pandemic offered an opportunity for reinvention. While schools were shuttered in 2020, the district scrapped a reading intervention program in use in some schools that was generally not backed by proponents of science of reading. That August, BPS put schools on notice that they needed to follow the science of reading and ultimately adopt evidence-based instruction.
“It was a perfect opportunity to say, ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’ ” said Dwayne Nuñez, principal of Ellison-Parks Early Education School and a former literacy coach. “Moves like that actually made me feel like we were serious about the work.”
Since then, the district has mandated that teachers in prekindergarten through second grade receive training in the science of reading, with 92 percent receiving such training so far, officials said.
And BPS has added literacy coaches to help teachers translate that training into their classroom practices. Each coach oversees five to 12 schools, Childs said. Though schools should ideally have their own coaches, she said, they’re still making a big difference, especially as teachers work to unlearn habits they were taught in college and have used for years. For example, though the district has long had phonics programs, teachers often didn’t prompt children to sound out every word when they read aloud, she said.
Thomas, the Roxbury kindergarten teacher, said Nuñez’s coaching has been career-changing.
“Honestly, Dwayne has been a godsend,” Thomas said. “This job is not easy.”
Some education advocates think BPS should have just gone with an entirely new curriculum with high ratings, instead of revising and supplementing Focus, since Boston’s scores have been so low.
“Kids are not reading,” said Edith Bazile, founder of Black Advocates for Educational Excellence. “How can the district say they’re doing a good job? You cannot overcome the data.”
Tiffany Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab for Mass General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, who studies BPS’s reading instruction, said the district’s approach follows the latest brain science on how best to teach reading, but changing student outcomes can take years. In an urban district like BPS, she said, improvement requires not just instructional changes, which are hard enough, but also tackling thornier issues like teachers’ subconscious racial biases and students’ hunger, housing, and other needs.
Yet she believes BPS is on the right track.
“They’re poised to really make some significant changes and potentially be leaders” nationwide, Hogan said.
A key part of sustaining change in large organizations is building a shared mission and sense of community, Hogan said, something BPS strives for in monthly meetings among principals and academic coaches.
Last spring, Mary Driscoll, a BPS regional superintendent, stood before a room of administrators in a colorful Hurley School classroom adorned with Spanish words. She asked them to say aloud the names of kids who’d made big strides because of Equitable Literacy. The educators, one after another, responded.
“Selma.” “Noah.” “Jasmine.”
A solemn silence fell.
“Thinking of the young readers we brought into the room, we owe it to them to make a good plan and stick to it,” she said.
BPS leaders say Focus keeps lessons fun and relevant to kids’ lives.
It was in that spirit that Jemma Joseph, a kindergarten teacher, sought to connect her students’ home lives to a book one morning last spring at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester. After reading aloud “Be a Friend to Trees”, she led a discussion about trees and recycling. Kids used words like “shelter” and “oxygen.”
Next, the kids rotated among several “centers”: “shopping” for fruit and vegetables using recycled bags, drawing seedlings the class was growing, building pint-sized chairs using wood blocks, and making collages with recycled scrap paper.
Trees are “amazing,” said one student, Lia Ramirez, as she cut brown paper. “I’ve read all about them.”
The Trotter principal, Sarita Thomas, said such lessons ensure all kids receive high-quality instruction for the first time in BPS.
“Finally, we’re setting a bar across every school in this district,” said. “It’s really doing the work of getting rid of the haves and the have-nots.”
Staff writer Mandy McLaren contributed reporting.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.