Seaford is the poorest school district in the state of Delaware, where more than half of its diverse student body is from low-income families, and nearly 20% are English language learners.
In 2012, the district spent $550,000 on a literacy program from a traditional publisher in an effort to elevate student achievement. Despite the provider’s claims, the materials were not aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
By 2014, several Seaford schools ranked in the bottom 5% of the state; these were labeled as FOCUS schools by the Delaware Department of Education.
Patchwork Programs and Revolving Doors
When assistant superintendent Dr. Corey Miklus joined Seaford School District in 2014, teacher leader groups were assembling a piecemeal curriculum in an attempt to better align to standards and improve the quality of instruction.
“Turnaround districts generally have two years to right the ship, which is not nearly enough time,” says Dr. Miklus. “That pressure creates a revolving door of professional development and materials, and it puts districts on a tiring cycle of new initiatives that aren’t given enough runway to make a real difference. I knew if the state came and looked at our curriculum, they were going to tell us it wasn’t aligned.”
With pressure from the state to improve student achievement, district leaders searched for a quality literacy curriculum that would support their students and teachers. They selected the Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing curriculum and implemented it during the 2015–16 school year.
Launching a Curriculum That Raises Expectations
Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing, developed by Dr. Sharon Walpole with support from the University of Delaware, is a research-based curriculum designed to make excellent instruction and differentiation easier.
We saw test scores rise, we saw achievement accelerating, we saw kids start to love reading.
Bookworms texts are high-level—“there’s no opportunity to water down the work” says Miklus—and the program is fast-paced, offering students more repetition, exposure, and experience throughout a lesson than most literacy programs.
Prior to implementation, so many students were reading below grade level that teachers had grown accustomed to simplifying instruction, slowing down lessons, and saying things louder. With Bookworms, students went from reading the same passages four days in a row to readings two new books a day—a big change for these classrooms.
Each book was like a virtual field trip—it shaped a world for them, and they didn’t want to stop reading. This never happened with our previous curriculum.
Seaford implemented the program slowly and deliberately to both minimize initiative fatigue and create space for important instructional shifts. “Everything moves so quickly with Bookworms, but our teachers and students rose to that challenge,” says Miklus. “The curriculum builds students’ content knowledge, and as a result the kids fell in love with the texts themselves. Each book was like a virtual field trip—it shaped a world for them, and they didn’t want to stop reading. This never happened with our previous curriculum.”
The Bookworms curriculum raises the standard for what is expected of students and, subsequently, what is expected of teachers. With support in the form of high-quality professional development, and allowing time for educators and children to digest this new philosophy, the district began to see across-the-board improvements in children’s reading and writing abilities after just one year.
In addition, the number of students at the highest proficiency rating increased from 15% to 23% across the upper elementary grades.
As a result of these impressive gains, two of Seaford’s four elementary schools were recognized by the Delaware Department of Education for outpacing the rest of the state in growth in grades 3–5. One of the elementary schools was also recognized statewide for success with African American children. Before Bookworms, 32% of African American children met the proficiency benchmark; after Bookworms, 58% did.
An Affordable Solution That Produces Results
Bookworms offered the district a considerable cost savings. To date, the total cost for the initial launch, ongoing professional development, and book reorders is nowhere near the price tag for its last curriculum.
The district has diverted some of these savings into technology, picking up more Chromebook carts as a part of its efforts to become a 1:1 district. It also invested heavily in professional development, providing teachers with fifteen days of PD to support the important practice shifts the curriculum requires.
Seaford has become a lighthouse district in the region, inspiring nearby school systems to reevaluate their current ELA curricula. “We’ve outpaced districts nearby with similar demographics, and we’ve invited them to visit our district and meet us in person to learn if this is the right program for their teachers and students,” says Miklus. “Even more affluent Delaware districts see what we’re doing and decide to adopt Bookworms in their schools.”
“Bookworms helped revive writing and encourage reasoning and productive struggle,” says Miklus. “It is truly aligned to the Common Core, and as a result we saw test scores rise, we saw achievement accelerating, we saw kids start to love reading. The curriculum and professional development laid the foundations for our success.”