By RICK WAGNER

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Schools not so long ago had nearly four in 10 students considered at risk in reading.

Then along came curriculum-based learning, something school system leaders hope will help students with learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those at risk subsequently declined.

WHAT WAS THE DECLINE AND WHY?

The percentage of students considered at risk for reading failure declined from 38% in the fall of 2018 to 28% in the spring of 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw students and the whole education system nationwide a curve ball starting in March of 2020 and continuing to today, when some students continue in virtual learning although most are back in the classroom.

The local system, the highest-enrollment system in the region, recently got a shout-out from the Carnegie Corporation in a “challenge paper” lauding the system’s work with the Core Knowledge Language Arts or CKLA program.

WHAT DID CARNEGIE SAY?

The paper, titled “The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning,” was written by Jim Short and Stephanie Hirsch and released in November.

It also highlighted the system joining the LIFT or Leading Innovation for Tennessee to work with the non-profit TNTP, a New York-based effort, and Tennessee SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, to improve curriculum and instruction.

The effort was led with help from Robin McClellan, the system’s supervisor of elementary education. McClellan as of March 12 left the school system to take a position with the Tennessee Department of Education.

“My epiphany came in 2016 like a tornado rather than a gentle breeze when I was taught — through our collaborations with SCORE and TNTP — that we must build students’ background knowledge while explicitly teaching foundational skills,” McClellan said in the November 2020 report. “I realized, with great dismay, that our work didn’t align with the research on how to teach kids to read.”

In the portion of the publication titled “The Essentials,” the paper highlighted three pivotal factors in improving teaching and learning through curriculum-based professional learning: leadership, resources and coherence.

Although the report said the effort sounded liked a “top-down initiative run by outsiders,” which ran the risk of teachers not buying into it or engaging in curriculum-based professional learning, instead a “corps” of about two dozen teachers helped lead the curriculum change.

“In Sullivan County Schools, the implementation of strong literacy curriculum was notable because the district and school leaders learned alongside the teachers,” McClellan said in an email interview. “The teachers were brought into the decision-making process and eventually became change agents and advocates for strong curriculum as they navigated the journey of teaching reading based on reading science.”

WHY CKLA, AND HOW DID IT WORK?

The group selected instructional materials that were, in the words of the report, rigorous and relevant to students and adopted CKLA.

It was piloted in 2016-17 with the help of SCORE and TNTP. District-level and school-level leaders conducted instructional walk-throughs and provided brief coaching sessions, prioritizing responses to teachers’ feedback, pointed back to research and publicly celebrating teachers’ work.

Despite some resistance from then-school board member Jane Thomas, CKLA was rolled out to all schools in 2017-18, with the teachers who had led the way continuing to support and mentor other educators to build knowledge and expertise, the report recounted.

Meanwhile, district leaders continue regularly to collaborate with teachers to share experiences during Board of Education meeting and highlight shared leadership in communications with parents and the media.

“As Tennessee finished its first year of implementing high quality instructional materials for literacy, momentum must not be lost,” McClellan said in an email interview.

“The spiral of learning, implementing, reflecting, and revising must continue. Our students deserve it.”