Strengthening Early Literacy

Educators in Vista, Calif., mobilize their attention 
on kindergarten after receiving a stark academic report
School Administrator, February 2017

Devin Vodicka, superintendent in Vista, Calif., reads to students at the Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts as part of the district’s emphasis on literacy in the earliest grades. (Photo by Dave Palmer) 
In 2013, I was shocked to discover only 19 percent of the kindergarten students in our southern California school system were transitional or probable readers. It was a dire warning sign that forecast long-term academic struggles for our students.

This disturbing indicator set us on a concerted course to emphasize early literacy in ways that would contribute to profound learning benefits.

In the four years since, thanks to our school board’s leadership and sustained support, early literacy has been a priority in the Vista Unified School District. We have developed and implemented assessments that are shared routinely with board members to mark progress toward our performance goals. The improvements have attracted relatively little fanfare because they are not captured by conventional measures.

New Hirings
We brought in our community to help us develop a three-year plan for improvements in early literacy. We expanded a new option in California called transitional kindergarten, hired a full-time early literacy coordinator and early literacy coaches to support classroom teachers and created a balanced literacy model that aligned with Common Core State Standards.

We also expanded our engagement with early education partners, expanded state-funded preschool programs on our elementary campuses and developed a prenatal-3rd grade network to promote collaboration with external groups. In addition, we have engaged parents and children through age 4 through district-run intergenerational learning opportunities such as the Reading Oasis, a comfortable, fun place resembling a school library where parents can learn how to read to their young children. The Reading Oasis at one of our Title I elementary schools has about 1,500 books (200 in Spanish), an audio reading station and bean bag chairs.

In Vista, where we serve nearly 25,250 students, about 58 percent of our kindergarten pupils qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and more than one in four is identified as an English learner. The district enrolls roughly 1,700 kindergarten students each year, 400 transitional kindergarten students and more than 500 students enrolled in preschools run by our partners.

The implementation of our early literacy plan has resulted in significant improvements for these young learners. In 2015-16, our kindergarten results showed 61 percent of the participants were in the transitional or probable reader category, a gain of more than 40 percentage points over a three-year period. As our kindergarten achievement increased each year, that cohort has experienced increased achievement in the ensuing grade levels.

Four Pointers

When I reflect on our efforts, several key insights seem worth sharing:

» Maintain a long-range view.
Focusing on early literacy requires a long-term view for leadership. Students in the primary grades do not take the standardized tests that are highly visible and widely publicized today. Improvements in these areas won’t be evident to the public for several years. It helps to build awareness locally by providing routine reports to the school board that can be shared with other community groups.

In Vista, these reports occur at least once per quarter, and we have found it helpful to do an annual workshop with the board to provide more time for thorough engagement and understanding. From the staff perspective, these reports create an accountability structure and reinforce the priority value we place on continuing to improve early literacy outcomes.

»Focus attention across the district.
As a superintendent, I conduct a monthly meeting with a broader team of literacy leaders to discuss implementation of our plans, challenges, recent assessment results and next steps. This team includes our district’s assistant superintendent of educational excellence, director of elementary instruction, early literacy coordinator and director of measurement and monitoring.

While each district varies in size and staffing configuration, these routine conversations help me to stay informed and sustain positive momentum for the team.

»Embed the teacher training.
We have shifted to job-embedded professional learning where possible. Initially our team was frustrated by the lack of changes in instruction after well-intentioned efforts to conduct traditional professional development trainings. Once we adjusted our approach to a coaching/demonstration model, we began to see pedagogical change.

Recently, we implemented a model where a roving team of demonstration coaches works with entire grade levels on a rotating basis, providing six or seven full days of professional learning for every teacher over the year. This has resulted in more small-group instruction and targeted, data-driven teaching that better meets the needs of our students. Ongoing, sustained, collaborative professional learning seems to be much more effective and a better use of resources than episodic in-service activities that are disconnected from classroom practice.

»Collaborate on your efforts.
Connecting with community partners, including our local early education agencies and health care providers, has been helpful. Through a collective effort that we call the Vista Partnership for Children, the school district has raised awareness and attracted numerous collaborators who share the goal of kindergarten readiness. Most of our elementary schools now host state-funded preschools on our campuses that are run by one of our partners. Developing this network also positioned us for grants and other funding opportunities that accelerate our efforts.

A Team Approach
Improving early literacy is challenging and complex. One of the most significant steps is to recognize that you need to build a team. As with most school district initiatives, that team includes the board of education, district administrators, teachers, parents and community partners. By staying focused, using routines effectively and making adjustments based on assessment information, we can raise the quality of literacy for our youngest learners. With a strong foundation of language and literacy, the potential for future success is limitless.

Many of us become teachers because of an inspiration to change lives. As a 1st-grade teacher, I experienced the profound impact of developing a strong learning foundation. I became a school leader because I wanted to improve even more young lives. Though the work we perform today with these students won’t factor into media attention to student test results for several years, focusing on early literacy gives us an opportunity to impact the life trajectories of an entire generation.

Devin Vodicka is superintendent of the Vista Unified School District in Vista, Calif. E-mail: Twitter: @dvodicka

Additional Resources

The author suggests these informational resources relating to his article:

» Reading Oasis Family Literacy Center,

» Vista Partnership for Children, a collaboration of leaders from education, health and human services, nonprofit, business, civic and philanthropic sectors,

» Vista Unified School District’s preschool partnership,; preschool collaboration video,; and balanced literacy handbook,