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    Becoming More Knowledgeable About Policy Through a Meaningful Partnership

    By Millie Henning
     | Feb 29, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-479966128What is a professional partnership? By definition, it is an entity formed by two or more professional organizations that provide services to the public. However, finding a professional partner or, more to the point, establishing a significant two-way partnership, can be a daunting task.

    It is a challenge, however, that the Keystone State Reading Association (KSRA) has gladly taken on, as we are in the process of forging such a professional partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE)—a move we would encourage other councils to take with similar agencies in their area.

    KSRA is the Pennsylvania state literacy council whose mission is to empower educators, leaders, and the community by providing opportunities and resources to make literacy accessible for all. PDE is an executive department of the state charged with publicly funded preschool, K–12, and adult educational budgeting, management, and guidelines. As the state education agency, the governor-appointed Pennsylvania secretary of education directs its activities.

    KSRA believes many of the decisions necessary for student and school success should not be made by an individual organization. Rather, these decisions should be made after collaborative discussions among educational organizations, policymakers, educators, and parents. The purpose of this article is to share the process KSRA is using to develop a professional partnership with PDE to ensure all stakeholder voices are heard.

    A reason to partner up

    During the fall of 2014, PDE announced it was changing the requirements for obtaining a K–12 reading specialist certificate by simply allowing educators to take a test. This suggested policy change immediately ignited a fiery response from most of the teacher preparation colleges and universities in Pennsylvania as well as current reading specialist certificate holders.

    On one hand, PDE stated the certificate add-on-by-testing option was enough for an educator to demonstrate competency as a reading specialist. On the other hand, KSRA stated educators should be certified only after completing rigorous coursework and supervised practicum.

    This opposing viewpoint led KSRA leadership to request a face-to-face meeting with the secretary of education. This was new territory for the current KSRA leaders, so we prepared by gathering information to explain our views, provided the rationale for KSRA’s position and actions sought, and offered our assistance. The PDE committee listened to our concerns intently.

    In return, we also listened to PDE’s issues about add-on-by-testing options. Both organizations discovered we shared like-minded individuals and the common goals of preparing highly qualified reading specialists and creating an authentic learning environment for all students across Pennsylvania.

    This first encounter gave us the hope, desire, and impetus to pursue a positive, two-way partnership.

    Becoming partners

    The issue that prompted our first meeting remains unresolved, although PDE did place a moratorium on its policy of attaining the reading specialist certificate by testing after our discussions. However, it is not that issue about which I write, but rather the process and importance of partnering.

    Both PDE and KSRA initially gathered information from each other such as knowing what prompted PDE to want to change its policy in the first place and why KSRA espouses the coursework with practicum approach. We questioned, suggested, and pontificated on regulations, theories of literacy, and the needs we brought to the table. We left the table with facial recognition for the names we had known, a clearer understanding of the motivations behind our interface, and an intense desire to establish the best direction for issue resolution.

    Change in the field of education does not happen quickly, nor does a professional partnership develop depth at the outset. But we knew we wanted to follow up on all the nuances and details exchanged by continued meetings, which have carried on largely through correspondence, e-mail, and telephone conversations, and have begun to cover other topics such as teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and assessments.

    The benefits and rewards

    Our partnership continues to develop and grow. For example, the PDE bureau directors now recognize KSRA as an important professional organization for educators, and KSRA recognizes PDE as approachable, supportive, and knowledgeable about educational policy.

    When our relationship began, KSRA was in the process of planning its 48th annual conference. What better opportunity than a conference to invite PDE to join with us, contribute the most current, definitive information, and inform our entire membership and guests of our now-developing partnership? We were most fortunate to have PDE Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Matthew Stem to answer questions from concerned educators. He fielded questions on topics such as teacher evaluation, state testing requirements, allocation of resources, and early literacy.

    At the same time, KSRA has become more open-minded about the process of educational policy, improving our reputation as willing to collaborate for educational solutions. Finally, KSRA has gained important contacts in PDE that have expanded our knowledge base. We are able to share more accurate information with our members on the avenues available for changing the certification process, passing a piece of legislation, or converting the reading specialist certification to educational specialist certification.

    Building a relationship with PDE is a work in progress and one that KSRA values, will nurture, and looks forward to continuing.

    Most important, KSRA encourages other councils to follow suit and to develop a similar partnership with their local education departments. Knowing the how and why of the decision and policymaking process provides the bridge to do so.

    Millie Henning, an ILA member since 1982, has served for three years as director of the Literacy Advocacy Committee for the Keystone State Reading Association. She is a retired reading specialist and currently a college supervisor for Cabrini College in Radnor, PA.

    This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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  • IRA member Geri Melosh remembers a Liberian champion of literacy.
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    In Memory of a Liberian Literacy Leader

    by Geri Melosh
     | Dec 10, 2014

    Contributed photo
    Jacob Sendolo (center in yellow) in happier times.
    For months, news services around the world have issued reports on the Ebola epidemic that has savaged West Africa. Since March, there have been over 17,000 reported cases of Ebola and more than 6,000 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Liberia, the worse-hit country of the Ebola outbreak, with more than 3,000 deaths, has fought this deadly virus with a severely strained public health infrastructure weakened by 23 years of a brutal dictatorship and civil war. Schools have been closed, food is in short supply, and many people are unemployed due to the crisis. News reports have typically spoken of the toll Ebola has taken on healthcare workers—doctors and nurses who have died valiantly in the line of duty, but they have not been the only victims of this deadly virus. In the last week of November, Jacob Sendolo, principal, teacher and long-term officer in the Liberian affiliate of the IRA, also died from Ebola.  His death will be felt deeply.


    I met Mr. Sendolo six years ago in 2009 in Monrovia when he was the principal of a school piloting a new literacy program, “Liberia Reads,” developed by our Florida-based non-profit, the Children’s Reading Center (CRC) in partnership with the Liberian YMCA.  Mr. Sendolo, as principal of a YMCA school, jumped at the chance to have several of his primary grade teachers trained in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension strategies. He attended all of the training his teachers underwent and agreed to limit the size of his classes in the early grades and keep classroom books and instructional materials secure. In 2011, he became a founding member of the Association of Literacy Educators (ALE), the first IRA affiliate in Liberia. In subsequent years, he became an assistant trainer in the Liberia Reads project, participated in ALE sponsored workshops to instruct teachers in other Monrovia and up-country schools in Liberia Reads literacy strategies. He enjoyed showing teachers how reading strategies could also be applied to math and served as one of the presenters at the first Liberian IRA national conference held in July 2014. During this time, Mr. Sendolo was also pursuing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Liberia.

    The best proof of Mr. Sendolo’s dedication to his profession was at his own school. His YMCA school is typical of most schools in Liberia with concrete block walls, a zinc roof, and hand-painted blackboards. Like 95% of Liberian schools, it has no electricity or running water. Six years ago when we first visited the school, classroom walls were bare, students did not have reading texts, and teachers had almost no literacy training. But at an unannounced visit by a CRC consultant in November 2013, it was clear a metamorphosis had occurred. Walls were no longer bare, but covered in student work, word walls, ABCs, and phonics blending ladders. Teachers were on task teaching literacy strategies and all primary students had reading texts and were engaged with instruction. Best of all, norm-referenced assessments indicated that the majority of Mr. Sendolo’s students were learning how to read.

    Mr. Sendolo died after contracting Ebola at a traditional funeral for a teacher who everyone had been led to believe died of other causes. Two other Liberia Reads teachers at his school were also exposed. His loss brings home how the damage of Ebola will last long after the disease is eradicated in Liberia. Mr. Sendolo touched many lives through his strong work ethic and his dedication to improving literacy levels in Liberian children. He will be sorely missed.

    Geri Melosh is longtime member of the IRA and principal of the Children’s Reading Center Charter School in Palatka, FL. She and her husband served as Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia in the ‘70s. She returns to Liberia regularly to help run literacy programs.

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  • An abrupt change in Pennsylvania's reading specialist certification triggers a forceful response from the KSRA.

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    PA Dept. of Ed Does End Run On Reading Specialist Certification

    by Dan Mangan
     | Nov 26, 2014

    Given the high stakes that are placed today on student achievement and testing outcomes, it might be assumed that major changes in educational policy can only result from careful debate in public forums informed by full consideration of research-based approaches for enhancing classroom instruction. But such is decidedly not the case in Pennsylvania where the formal qualifications for a critical academic position were changed in early November by means of a single sentence buried at the very end of a routine two-page email update from the Department of Education’s (PDE) Division of Professional Education and Teacher Quality.

    Careful readers of the PDE email of November 5, 2014 discovered to their utter astonishment that the education department is apparently doing a complete about-face on the qualifications for becoming a reading specialist in the state. The full text of the single-sentence blurb states that “Reading Specialist is a content area that can be added to an instructional certificate by testing.” This terse announcement, hardly a model of administrative clarity, has been published as an ipse dixit: it is not accompanied by any background information, explanatory comment, or practical guidance.

    PA Acting Secretary of Ed
    Carolyn Dumaresq

    Unfortunately for the Acting Secretary of Education, Carolyn Dumaresq, Pennsylvania’s literacy educators are not at all docile and know an end run when they see one. The PDE’s reticence on this matter is noteworthy. Apparently PDE is not unduly concerned by the impression created of an attempt to sneak something through. Moreover, it is surprising that a state education department would consider lessening requirements for certification at a time when teacher education generally has come under attack by groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality and others.

    What Happened in 2003

    Just how bizarre is all of this? A good way to answer that question is to go back to 2003 when a similar change was attempted by the state’s education department. At that time educators across the state voiced strong opposition to the attempted elimination of rigorous coursework for this important role, which involves many discrete skill sets, specific knowledge, and mentored experience. Leading the way was the Keystone State Reading Association (KSRA), an affiliate of the International Reading Association (IRA), a membership association of literacy professionals. KSRA mounted a vigorous advocacy campaign, directed by its former Governmental Relations Chair, Jesse Moore.

    Moore testified at hearings on the issue, a process with no parallel as yet in the current situation. He pointed out that granting reading specialist certification based on a two-hour multiple choice test contradicted the IRA Standards for Reading Professionals, which are used by the National Council for the Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE). He emphasized that NCATE had always considered reading specialist certification to be an advanced degree program. Moore and the KSRA leadership also invited the education secretary to a state board meeting where exchanges with members and other concerned educators was enough to eventually prompt a change of mind and get the test-only pathway to reading specialist certification revoked.

    This past history makes the single-sentence policy reversal by Dr. Dumaresq all the more baffling, coming, as it does, in the interregnum between Pennsylvania’s outgoing and incoming gubernatorial administrations. One wonders just who pushed for this change at this time, whom it is intended to serve, and how such an ill-conceived disclosure process could possibly foster compliance, let alone produce a beneficial result. The department of education now has a fight on its hands, and the charge is being led once again by the KSRA.

    KSRA’s New Call to Action

    Julie B. Wise, KSRA’s current president, wasted no time calling attention to Dr. Dumaresq’s action, informing her members in an email that the PDEis trying to employ a shortcut to an academic certification program that requires specialized education. “We are concerned about the abrupt decision by PDE to provide an alternative option for certifying reading specialists instead of training reading specialists through graduate courses,” which, she noted, “provide intensive academic and field work to prepare competent K-12 reading specialists.”  

    Julie B. Wise

    As KSRA sees it, school districts hire teachers who complete graduate reading programs because of the strong foundational knowledge of strategic teaching, diagnostic abilities, and professional support they aptly provide to students and general education teachers. Rita Bean of KSRA, a former IRA board member,puts the issue this way: “What happened to rigor? We talk about quality teaching—and high level standards—and improving teacher performance. Yet the state is willing, on the basis of one test, to grant reading specialist certification to individuals with initial teaching certification?” KSRA’s message to Harrisburg is that PDE needs “to rescind the hasty decision,” and “reinforce the appropriate route for earning a quality K-12 reading specialist certification.”

    Wise and KSRA’s Governmental Relations Chair, Millie Henning, are mobilizing college education school deans, school districts, and local literacy associations across the state to communicate their opposition to the test-only certification idea. They are also planning to request a meeting with PDE. Their advocacy strategy is spelled out in full on the landing page of the KSRA website. As Wise points out, the issue affects graduate education students as well: “If educators decide to take the test-only certification approach, will districts hire them when they lack preparation that includes strong fieldwork?”

    Going Forward

    It remains to be seen whether Dr. Dumaresq can be prevailed upon to change course, and if not, whether the appointment of a new secretary under the incoming governor will make a difference. Meanwhile KSRA has been joined in its advocacy effort by the leadership of IRA.

    Jill Lewis-Spector, IRA’s current president, believes test-only certification will have serious ramifications: “The solution for having more and well-prepared teachers who can address the literacy achievement gap is for teachers to pursue additional preparation for teaching literacy from nationally accredited programs.”

    IRA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post concurs: “There is no short cut or substitute for graduate level training when it comes to setting qualifications for the reading specialist certificate.” Post has pledged IRA’s assistance in KSRA’s campaign to drive this point home to PDE.

    Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Reading Association, dmangan@/.

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  • IRA's work with teacher training in Sierra Leone continues despite the Ebola crisis.

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    Bringing Diagnostic Teaching to Sierra Leone

    by Nancy Allen and Peter McDermott
     | Oct 16, 2014

    Editor’s Note: This story was originally printed in Reading Today magazine. Currently,  Sierra Leone is highly impacted by the Ebola crisis and schools are closed throughout the country and to compensate, students are learning some subjects at home via radio. As of this online publication, the Koinadugu region is Ebola-free and teacher training continues. IRA sends our sympathies for Ebola losses and our hopes the region will soon eradicate the disease.

    As rain thunders from the sky on the tin roof and the generator rumbles, 30 Master Teachers from villages across the Koinadugu region of Sierra Leone demonstrate best practices in literacy education. Volunteers from the International Reading Association (IRA) look on in celebration. This scene is part of an IRA initiative that was successfully launched in July 2013, through which approximately 640 teachers have been trained in Diagnostic Teaching Methods (DTM). The two-year project is co-sponsored with Catholic Relief Services and funded through the United States Department of Agriculture. The ultimate goal of the project is to improve classroom teaching and children’s learning throughout Sierra Leone.

    What Is the Diagnostic Teaching Methods Model?

    DTM is a K–12 model of instruction that is based on current literacy research and effective classroom
    practices. It is intended for countries where literacy educators have not been exposed to contemporary methods of teaching. A central component of DTM is its emphasis on participatory teaching methods that integrate research about prior knowledge, emerging literacy, vocabulary, comprehension, and the writing process. Teaching strategies such as KWL (what I Know, what I Want to know, what I did Learn), prediction, retelling, story structure, reciprocal teaching, and every-pupil-respond techniques are presented through demonstration lessons. After each demonstration lesson the participants discuss and reflect about how the DTM method might be effectively applied to their own school contexts. The project has been implemented in other African countries, such as Tanzania and Kenya, but this is the first time it has been taught in this West African country.

    Civil War Recovery, 80 Students Per Class

    Sierra Leone is a beautiful country that rests on the Atlantic Ocean and stretches inland to the neighboring countries of Guinea and Liberia. Although it has many natural resources—such as one of
    the finest ports in the world, iron, diamonds, and gold—the country continues to recover from a devastating civil war that created enormous challenges to its infrastructure and schools. The majority
    of its teachers are volunteers who are uncertified by the educational ministry. These volunteers teach in the hope of someday becoming certified. Teachers are typically faced with large classes containing
    as many as 80 children and have limited, or nonexistent, books and supplies. Most schools have no electricity or even plumbing, and certainly no technology. Yet despite these formidable challenges the teachers, both certified and uncertified, are highly motivated and committed to helping all children learn to read and write.

    The purpose of the project is to prepare school leaders in DTM so that they can later prepare other teachers throughout their regions. Two IRA members, Nancy Allen (Qatar University) and Peter McDermott (Pace University) conducted three one-week workshops spread across the academic year. Participants who complete all three workshops are eligible to be certified as DTM trainers. During the course of the program, they have been training other teachers in their districts in DTM methods and will be expected to continue to do so in the future. There are challenges in sharing DTM’s literacy methods in Sierra Leone. Many of the schools lack sufficient literacy materials such as books, paper, and pencils, and participants must learn to become creative with the few resources they do have. There are language differences to overcome, as the first language of people in Sierra Leone is Kreole, with English as a second language. Often written materials that seem clear in the United States are difficult for teachers in Sierra Leone to understand because of specialized vocabulary used in literacy education (e.g., schema, text structure, etc.).

    Combining Local Tradition With Teaching Methods

    The most exciting and engaging DTM lessons are those that actively involve the participants in discussion and critical thinking about the familiar. For example, to teach story structure, Nancy and Peter asked a volunteer to tell a traditional story. Kai, an experienced teacher, shared a story his father taught him when he was a boy. The story was about a boy who was always lazy and later became a
    poor, lazy man who could not afford a wife or children. Realizing that his life was a mess, he sought the advice of a sorcerer, who told him that he could easily become a rich man. All he had to do was collect a bucket of sweat! The man set out to collect his magic bucket of sweat, which required that he work without stopping. To his surprise, he soon found that he had filled the bucket and had also become rich. He married, had children, and lived happily ever after.

    After listening to Kai’s story, the trainees analyzed it according to its narrative structure and discussed its similarities and differences to other stories they knew. They discussed how story structure could be effectively used when teaching children how to understand, retell, and question other narrative texts. Culturally specific connections such as this were often used to demonstrate how to use the teaching strategies in the DTM Handbook. IRA’s efforts to contribute to literacy education in Sierra Leone are greatly needed and appreciated by all the people with whom Nancy and Peter met. The 21st Century requires skilled readers and writers, and countries such as Sierra Leone will only prosper when their children are literate and well educated. IRA is making important contributions to literacy education in this western African country.

    Nancy Allen, PhD ( is a visiting professor at Qatar University and has been an IRA member since 2009.
    Peter McDermott, PhD ( is a professor at Pace University and has been an IRA member since 1986.

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  • As teachers, we are fortunate to see positive change in our classrooms every day. To make a difference in my community, I look to my local council, the Toledo Area Council of the International Reading Association (TACIRA) in Ohio, to volunteer my time. And this year’s council service opportunities really touched my heart.
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    Helping Kids With Cancer: Local Council Makes a Big Impact in Ohio

    by Julie Greenberg
     | Sep 17, 2014

    As teachers, we are fortunate to see positive change in our classrooms every day. To make a difference in my community, I look to my local council, the Toledo Area Council of the International Reading Association (TACIRA) in Ohio, to volunteer my time. And this year’s council service opportunities really touched my heart.

    In 2013–2014, TACIRA collaborated with Cancer Connection of Northwest Ohio (CCNWO). Our work together has made our members aware of several important issues within our community. We have now learned that there are not many resources for children with cancer, there are very few resources for teachers who may have a student with cancer and there are many misconceptions about cancer,
    especially childhood cancer.

    We supported CCNWO by offering resources to assist with teacher education about cancer and share the goals of raising awareness for children with cancer in the Toledo area. We also offered insight into creating a cancer awareness program for schools with resources found on teacher websites, assisted with research to help CCNWO reach educators, and sought out materials from other cancer agencies to help with teacher education about students with cancer. Our members even worked together to reach out to our local chemotherapy patients served by CCNWO. TACIRA opened our September meeting during National Childhood Cancer week to be the first organization to view the CCNWO PowerPoint presentation.

    In September, I met a 7-year-old girl, Zoey, by chance.

    She was at the hospital to give out her rubber band bracelets to patients while visiting and comforting her grandfather who was undergoing chemotherapy. Zoey was asked to leave the cancer hospital due to an emergency at the facility. I got in touch with Zoey’s family to see if she would like to sell her bands
    for the Toledo Council’s Childhood Cancer Awareness project.

    The Zoey Band sale was very successful, and the Council sold out at our first meeting. The money raised was used to purchase the materials for the holiday ornament project to reach out to chemotherapy patients at several clinics and hospitals.

    Hundreds of area students made handmade ornaments and cards with a positive message using’s interactive tool to create theme poems. We were able to purchase 200 ornaments thanks to Zoey Bands. This Childhood Cancer Awareness project resulted in additional supports from Mercy College of Ohio, who attended our TACIRA meetings and presented to their students about the efforts of our local IRA council and sold Zoey Bands there at the college. CCNWO was awarded funds to support the needs of children with cancer in part due to our work to spread the word. Several members of the medical college and Cancer Connection of NWO are now members of TACIRA.

    The children served by CCNWO were invited to attend our May 2014 Children’s Literacy Day event at the Wildwood Metro Park, a collaboration with Metro Parks of Toledo. More than 600 parents, teachers, and students attended the event to meet award-winning Ohio Author David FitzSimmons (Curious Critters series), and many of our members purchased and donated Curious Critters books for the children attending!

    To further connect literacy with healing, I collaborated with Jean Schoen, founder and director of CCNWO, to develop a children’s book for cancer awareness. Created by CCNWO, Someone I Know Has Cancer helps children who may have loved ones with cancer. We are very proud of all that we were able to do to help CCNWO, and we hope to continue making a difference in our community. For more information about our council, see To find your local IRA council, see /councils.

    Julie Greenberg is the TACIRA President, a reading teacher and intervention specialist at Coy Elementary, Oregon City Schools, and has been an IRA member since 2008.

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