KCS ‘Buzzing’ about primary reading

Though a Blount County resident and Maryville High School graduate, Buzz Thomas said “my roots are deep” in Farragut.

“Our family farm was in Farragut, back when that was the country. … My mother, my aunts and uncles are all graduates of Farragut High School,” Thomas, appointed interim superintendent of Knox County Schools June 15, said during a recent phone interview.

Though looking back to his relatives, Thomas looked ahead on the subject of improving reading scores among Knox County primary students.

While saying Farragut Primary School isn’t exempt from reading struggles, Thomas pointed to a program — starting this school year — advising primary school teachers on how to improve reading instruction.

“Farragut has such a proud tradition and passion for educational excellence,” Thomas, former president of The Great Schools Partnership, said. “… You can rest assured that Farragut Primary is ahead of the game when you compare yourselves to other East Tennessee school districts and other Knox County school districts.”

“Farragut Primary is probably one of our top reading schools. But, even at Farragut Primary, there is a significant minority of students that are not proficient readers,” Thomas added.

Primary teachers will be trained “in the latest, best ways to teach children how to read,” Thomas said.

“We will be training our teachers throughout next [school] year,” Dr. Elizabeth Alvez, KCS chief academic officer, said. “Reading instruction is probably the most important thing we do in our early elementary years. By third grade they need to be proficient in order to read to learn.

“We wanted to make sure that their principals also had that opportunity to have that same information and same knowledge so they can support their teachers in the classroom and know what to look for,” Alvez said.

Before the school year starts, in July, “We’re going to give every elementary school administrator and principal this three-day course to familiarize them with the most research-based proven techniques for teaching reading that their teachers will be learning,” Thomas said.

Primary school teachers’ training “will start this August. … It is 10 half-days, one half-day a month,” Alvez said.

Striving to train teachers to place more emphasis on phonics, “For many of our teachers, they haven’t had that type of training around phonics and phonemic awareness,” Alvez said. “It’s really intended to help them understand that process. … Help them to identify struggling readers.

“We also have a lot of focus on dyslexia,” Alvez added. “… This training has components that will equip teachers to identify that at an early age and again to provide strategies to help intervene and support students who may be struggling with those foundational skills.”

Thomas added, “There’s a fairly widespread belief that the reason Tennessee has lagged behind in reading [skills] in these early grade levels is because we have a large number of dyslexic students who have not been diagnosed.”