Making sense of the science of reading in a New Jersey school district

Sandra Rodriguez-Gomez
Sandra Rodriguez-Gomez
Sandra Rodriguez-Gomez has over 30 years of educational experience. She has served the largest and one of the smallest school districts in New Jersey. She has been a teacher, vice principal, principal, director, executive director and is now an assistant superintendent at Hoboken Public Schools.

The educational universe is in flux. District leaders throughout the country are trying to reconcile recent assessment data with critical next steps. At every turn, the conversation is focused on literacy, and the community is looking to us as district leaders for direction and new pathways.

Hoboken, New Jersey, a bedroom community to New York City, has been engaging in a cycle of noticings and wonderings for over four years. In Hoboken Public Schools we noticed trends in data and wondered what we could shift to make powerful, lasting, and impactful gains in our data, more specifically, our early childhood foundational reading data.

Plainly stated, we knew we had a problem. Our teachers in K5 were utilizing a good but dated core literacy program. Our teachers in upper elementary were confirming that a large number of students were not reading at grade level, lacked elevated vocabulary and struggled with comprehension.

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So we talked with teachers. A lot. We asked really thoughtful questions. Teachers were vulnerable and bluntly honest as they shared what they needed and wanted to know. Simply stated, our regularly scheduled programming was not working and needed a tune-up. We had to do something.

My supervisor of ELA, Christy Gaudio, and I, under the leadership of our superintendent, began to research, consider, create and formalize our plan. The plan was to put the tenets of the science of reading at the core of our literacy program. We wanted explicit literacy instruction that would provide extensive high-quality support for instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—the 5 pillars as identified by the work of the 2000 National Reading Panel.

After a very thoughtful and intensive curricular review guided by both the What Works Clearinghouse Standards and EdReports, the Hoboken Public School District ELA Curriculum Committee adopted Wonders ©2023 as our core English language arts curriculum in K5. It was implemented with full fidelity for the first time last academic school year. The evaluation in which Wonders ©2023 was highly rated across the three gateways: Text Quality and Complexity, Building Knowledge, and Usability further cemented our decision to adopt.

It was critical for us to find high-quality materials that met local, state and national standards and at the same time aligned with the science of teaching reading. Additionally, the professional development and the accompanying support were invaluable for buy-in across the district.

The next step in the science of reading

We felt really good about this first pathway but wanted more. The “more” came in our second pathway, our partnership with the Institute for Multisensory Education. IMSE’s mission is to empower districts, schools, teachers and parents to be agents of change toward equitable literacy instruction for all learners that is driven by research.

Over the past three years, we have worked in partnership with IMSE to ensure 100% of our kindergarten through second-grade teachers have been trained in the Orton-Gillingham methodology to teaching reading. In addition to this, we have identified key staff members in grades 3-8 and in special education to receive this impactful training. We are proud to share that districtwide, we have trained over 100 educators through IMSE.

Orton-Gillingham is a highly structured approach that breaks reading and spelling down into smaller skills involving letters and sounds and then builds on these skills over time. It was the first approach to use explicit, direct, sequential, systematic and multi-sensory instruction to teach reading, which is not only effective for all students but essential for teaching students with dyslexia. This partnership and the teaching and learning associated with it has become our dual-pronged framework for the explicit teaching of foundation skills.

Today we are proud to share that Hoboken Public Schools is outperforming the state in all tested grades in English language arts. Early evaluation of our literacy data shares impressive upward gains. Our teachers are more confident and our students are more engaged as they are seeing themselves as readers and writers. The non-negotiables are constant professional development, materials/resources, coaching, modeling and a high expectation of fidelity.

If there is no fidelity or spotty fidelity, what you will have is dirty data and the district cannot then tell its story. We are Hoboken and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “Winners”, we asked the best of ourselves, then gave so much more. It really does take an entire village to be vulnerable, honest, and engage with the right partners in the journey to influence the literacy lives of all children.

Our story is not complete, we continue to engage in professional development, creating curricular maps that guide teachers through every minute of the 90-minute literacy block utilizing both the core literacy program and the OG methodology. We are constantly analyzing data and making necessary adjustments to implementation but now we have a foundation that is informed, unwavering and laser-focused. We are confident that the gains will follow.

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