NEWPORT, Ky. -- As parents scramble this holiday season to get their children just the right gifts, Newport Independent Schools is busy planning something special for its flock of more than 1,800 students: the gift of improved literacy skills.
All of the local school district's youngest readers will be taking home new, age-appropriate books prior to the holiday break this month, and students at the primary, intermediate and high schools can expect to see increased school library book collections early in the new year as well as added technology resources. A total of 40 new Wi-Fi “hot spots" will be spread throughout Newport in the coming months, and families in the district can also expect invitations to more after-school, literacy-building activities.
No, Santa didn’t pay an early visit to the urban school district. It’s all happening thanks to a $1.9 million gift the district received earlier this fall through the U.S. Department of Education’s Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant program. The federal program aims to develop and improve high-quality literacy programs in high-needs schools.
Many local schools fit the bill, but no district in Greater Cincinnati had ever received funding through the highly competitive grant program since it began in 2012. Newport knew it was a long shot, according to superintendent Kelly Middleton. However, district administrators also knew the funding would add a much-needed boost to the variety of initiatives they have launched in the last few years in an effort to increase K-12 student performance in reading and language arts. It would also help jump-start literacy for kids long before they entered preschool.
“We all started dreaming," Middleton said of the grant submission earlier this year. “We knew what it could mean for our kids."
Awards were announced in late September, and Newport Independent Schools was one of 29 recipients this fiscal year. Now that the dream is a reality and the groundwork is complete, the school district is in the process of rolling out a two-year plan that includes initiatives aimed at helping children of every age and grade level improve their literacy skills.
The biggest part of the plan is getting needed resources -- i.e. books -- into kids' hands.
Lisa Rizzo has been purchasing books this month for the first school-wide book distribution at the primary school. It will be the first of many that will take place in all three of the district's schools over the next two years, she said.
She’s getting input from teachers who will be aligning activities in their classrooms with the books kids will be taking home to keep.
"There has been a lot of excitement and enthusiasm,” said Rizzo, who will be coordinating the literacy grant. "I love seeing this because I think it's this enthusiasm that will help motivate our students to read more and enjoy reading."
Reading is the most fundamental academic skill children need to master to become successful in school and in life, said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
"Access to books and proven literacy instruction are critical to narrowing the achievement gap in education to help children thrive," King said in a statement announcing this year’s Innovative Approaches to Literacy grantees.
But many children in underserved communities have limited access to school libraries that deliver high-quality literacy programming and adequate books and resources for children from low-income families, according to the Department of Education. In addition, many of these children have limited access to age- and grade-level appropriate reading material in their homes.
In Newport, children will be given books to take home as part of the grant, but the district is also strengthening its school libraries and technology. The collection of books will increase at each of its school libraries and plans are in place to create "maker spaces" in each one as well.
Maker spaces have been popping up in school libraries more and more in the last few years. They are shared spaces where students can learn and create using a variety of resources, from computers, special software and 3-D printers to woodworking tools.
The planned maker spaces are a great example of how the district is using both “old school” methods, like traditional books, along with new technology to improve literacy, said Diane Hatfield, the district’s curriculum coordinator.
"It’s a two-fold approach," she noted. "Today’s kids are (digital) ‘natives,' so it’s important that we use both methods."
Newport is adding technology in every way possible, according to Hatfield, and the new grant funding is infusing their efforts.
For example, funding from another federal grant program allowed Newport to provide laptops to its high school students at the start of the school year. The district has also received funding recently to provide iPads to a large portion of its student population.
Additionally, the school district has provided "Footsteps2Brilliance" to caregivers since the start of last school year. The free mobile literacy app puts more than 1,000 e-books, songs and learning activities into the hands of every caregiver with a smartphone, tablet or computer within the school district. It is designed for children ages 3 to third grade.
Books and a list of online resources also go home with parents enrolled in the district’s United Way Born Learning Academy, a kindergarten readiness program that aims to help caregivers turn everyday moments into learning opportunities for their young children.
"Our No. 1 goal is to have all of our students reading at or above grade level by third grade,” said Hatfield. "A big part of that is simply getting books in our children’s hands."
More literacy-themed activities will be held as a result of the grant program as well in an effort to get more K-12 parents on board, she said.
Increased access to the internet, which is already a priority in the city of Newport, will be another step toward ensuring every family and child in Newport can benefit from the school district’s literacy improvement efforts, Middleton said. The new grant will allow the district to create 40 “hot spots” throughout the city where locals can access the internet, he said.
"Collectively, everything we're doing takes away any excuses. Kids won’t be able to say, ‘I don’t have a book to read' or, ‘I don’t have internet access,'" Middleton added. "We’re working to provide them with all the resources they need."