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How schools are pushing literacy this year
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Jill Kelly, right, a media specialist, reads to a group of third grade students during the first day of school for the 2019 academic year at Martin Elementary School in Flowery Branch on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Sometimes one book is all it takes to spark a love of reading in students. 

“The main thing I tell kids is that you do like to read, you just have to find the right book,” Julie Townley, media specialist at Johnson High said. 

This year Hall County Schools is helping kids discover their reading niche and enhance their writing and reading skills through the Literacy for Hall initiative. 

Kevin Bales, Hall’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the push for literacy is taking place system-wide from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

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Fair Street International School media specialist Matt McClure reads along with first-grader Jose Carmelo Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, during the first day of classes for the new school year. Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools are launching a new literacy program this year to help instill a love of reading in students. - photo by Scott Rogers

Depending on the school and grade, the initiative may look different. Jill Kelly, media specialist and Martin Technology Academy, said all teachers were challenged by Will Schofield, the district’s superintendent, to encourage literacy among all students, no matter the subject. 

Kelly has already made a goal for the students at Martin and herself. By reading to children, she aims to “provide a Christmas morning smile every single day.”

While literacy has always been a focus in the system, Kelly said she likes how all the schools are uniting behind it as one common goal this year. 

“We read for achievement, enrichment and joy,” Kelly said. “As a media specialist, I of course support the achievement, definitely enrichment, but I get to own the joy.”

Emily Nichols, media specialist at Riverbend Elementary, said she’s excited about the new initiative because it involves kids in all aspects of literacy, including reading, writing and speaking. 

At Riverbend, she said teachers are encouraging students to find the types of books they enjoy, instead of only having books assigned to them. 

“If a kid is interested in World War II, then they can go for it,” Nichols said. “It’s up to them and what they’re passionate about, just as long as they’re reading.”

Thao Tran, second grade teacher at Martin Technology Academy, said because of the literacy push, teachers are having to relearn a new lesson plan for reading. 

She said the goal of the new literacy program, which provides outlines for each month, is to help get every student on their grade level or above. 

“The program is supposed to make it more challenging for them and make them better readers,” Tran said. 

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Fair Street International School first-grader Sefora Vasques-Domingo finds a book to read Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, on the first of class for Gainesville City Schools. Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools are launching new literacy programs this year to help instill a love of reading in students. - photo by Scott Rogers
Making better citizens through literacy

Stan Lewis, Johnson High School’s principal and Hall’s director of community relations and athletics, said the initiative stretches across all content areas in the schools, not just English classes.

“If we want kids to be successful, they’ve got to be literate,” he said. “We can be innovative, but if we don’t have people that are literate, innovation is constrained.”

Cathryn Sawyer, assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at Johnson High, said her school acted as a model for Hall’s literacy initiative. 

Four years ago Johnson High started its Literacy Leadership Committee, which is composed of teachers from each content area. She said the school has also kept up with its Silent Sustained Reading, which takes place at the end of sixth period, four days a week. 

Last year teachers were encouraged to read for pleasure to set an example for the students. Sawyer said the school’s teachers read a combined total of 1,000 books that year. 

Now that schools are back in swing, teachers from different subject areas are looking for ways to highlight literacy in their classrooms. 

Sawyer said even physical education will incorporate literacy into the lesson plan at Johnson High. 

Instead of forcing a physical education class to teach something found in an English class, she said they’re looking for literacy that already exists in that subject area. 

This year the physical education department will have students gather articles about athletes who exhibit qualities found in Johnson High’s Knights Creed. 

The creed states: “ Be honest, be respectful, be personally responsible. You are blessed with talent, use it to make a positive difference.”

Students will read and hold short discussions about those athletes, who are connected to the creed. 

“It means something to the kids because of the Knights Creed, and then it’s comfortable for a PE teacher to teach literacy about athletes,” Sawyer said. 

Through the literacy initiative, Sawyer said the goal for students is to “become a proficient adult and a good citizen.”

She reminds students that literacy isn’t just reading. It entails writing, listening, speaking and thinking. 

“Whether they’re going to go into a career right out of high school or go to college, we hope that they’ll be proficient in those areas,” she said. 

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Fair Street International School first-graders get busy Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, during the first day of classes for the new school year. - photo by Scott Rogers
Gainesville’s little Bookworms

Gainesville City Schools is also pushing literacy this year with its elementary students. The system has rolled out its Bookworms reading and writing curriculum in full force.

Niki Hudgins, kindergarten teacher at Fair Street International Academy, said Bookworms is more rigorous compared to what the school has used in the past. She said some of the books are a little above grade level, which exposes kids to a richer vocabulary. 

Gwenell Brown, Fair Street’s principal, said she visited one of the Bookworm Institutes over the summer to learn more about the program. 

“I’m excited to be in the classroom and observe what I know should be going on,” she said. 

Brown said Bookworms aims to get students excited about certain authors. Fair Street’s media center will feature collections of books by those authors to promote the program. 

“It helps put students on grade level and pushes students beyond grade level, that’s our ultimate goal,” Brown said.