By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — The Kansas State Department of Education is setting aside $15 million in funding for a literacy initiative intended to address learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative will allow Kansas teachers to receive specialized training in the science of reading through the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program. LETRS is a professional development program that provides educators with tools to improve the literacy and language development of their students.
Through the program, educators learn to identify and intervene before students suffer from reading failure.
Funds set aside will be drawn from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund and spread across three years. The Kansas initiative will focus on pre-K through third-grade teachers, English as a second language educators, reading specialists, and special education.
“Early literacy is an effort the state board has been committed to for many years because it is critical to long-term academic success,” said education commissioner Randy Watson. “With the learning loss created by the pandemic and the federal funds made available to address this loss, this is the right opportunity at the right time.”
Amid the pandemic, Kansas classrooms saw academic losses in reading, mathematics, social-emotional issues and literacy, Watson said. Education officials hope this program, already used previously to a lesser degree across the state, can help the state’s classrooms recover.
The program will first be available to all teachers in the five Kansas counties most impacted academically — Douglas, Johnson, Shawnee, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties. Some counties in southeast Kansas also will be included.
KSDE plans to expand services to more rural communities during its second phase.
Besides training in structured literacy for every teacher, LETRS will provide professors at higher education institutions with better training to prepare future educators, said Jim Porter, chairman of the state board of education.
“We can have confidence that those people that are dealing with each stage have the capacity and the ability to know about the science of reading and what works for our students,” Porter said. “We have numerous students who are not successful in reading, and we believe that this is going to make a tremendous impact on their part.”
Private accredited schools also will have access to the same intense training for their teachers. Most of the science of reading training will take place virtually, although some will be in-person.
The science of reading focuses on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
“This training will enhance and support any ongoing efforts to implement structured literacy,” said Michelle Dombrosky, who represents District 3 on the board. “LETRS is basically the science of reading — the what and the why — and structured literacy is the how.”