Dr. Shawn Foster and Waterford.org Curriculum Director Julie Christensen discuss literary success during a tour of Brookdale Elementary School.

The Orangeburg County School District is celebrating the success that its pre-kindergarten through second-grade students have achieved with the help of software for early learners.

Waterford.org is a national early education nonprofit. A team of representatives visited Orangeburg County on Monday, with some from as far away as California and Oklahoma.

“Waterford put together this event because Orangeburg has had such success with their implementation. So we wanted to come and see on the ground what’s really happening, give other folks the opportunity also to see that and to give the folks in Orangeburg the opportunity to share their success so we can bring this to more kids in more places to give them that strong start,” said Julie Christensen, director of curriculum for Waterford.org.

Christensen was among a group that visited Brookdale Elementary School, where pre-kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes were toured.

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“This is really important for me to be here and see the children interacting with the content because my team develops the content. It’s just a real treat for us to see how it’s working well for the kids. We were able to see … how the children in each of those classrooms were working at their own levels,” Christensen said.

“We could see just the real difference in the differentiation that the kids are getting with the content, and then also just see what’s working well, if there are any sticking points with maybe navigating the activity so that we can go back and talk to our (user experience) designers and let them know what we saw. But I just really enjoyed seeing what we build coming to life in the classroom,” she said.

OCSD Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster said the district has seen reading gains, particularly among kindergartners.

“Our kindergartners have been on it for the longest. I think it’s going to be shocking what we’ve seen in the growth of those students. In phonological awareness, our kindergartners for the first time, according to our iReady data, have met the national average (both at 34 percent). In letter recognition, we’ve exceeded the national average (29 percent versus the national average of 23 percent). So we’re seeing the results from that data and the implementation,” Foster said.

Foster shared some of that data during a presentation he made at the Orangeburg County Convention Center.

“I’ve always said that literacy is the foundation for life. … Our focus on literacy at an early age is something that we’re going to continue to put at the forefront of what it is we do,” he said.

Waterford.org says it combines learning, mentoring and technology to build family and community partnerships that deliver access, excellence and equity in early education for all children.

The Waterford.org software usage begins with its Upstart program, an online kindergarten-readiness program for 4-year-olds that is designed to deliver significant and lasting academic achievement gains, Foster said.

“It’s there where we really have a heavy lift on the parent engagement piece. If we can get our parents engaged in their child’s education from the beginning, just imagine how we can teach parents about being an advocate for their child, but also how to assist their child in those early literacy areas so that we can make sure we build parents along with literacy,” he said.

Bowman resident Sonya Disher believes in providing support for her children’s learning. Her 7-year-old son, Keimir, a student at Bethune-Bowman Elementary School, is among the students enjoying Waterford.org.

“It helps me improve my reading and math and subtracting and regrouping. When I get stuff wrong, it reads it to me,” Keimir said. Music is included and “sometimes it just sings it to you.”

Keimir likes the reading help he receives the most. His teacher can help him “when I get stuff wrong.”

“They go over it with me,” he said.

Disher said she has seen an improvement in her son’s reading.

“He always loved to read, but since he’s in Waterford, he’s developed a (greater) love for reading. He likes to read chapter books, and he’s only in second grade. So that’s a plus. Once he starts reading, he doesn’t just read one book, he likes to read two or three books a night,” she said.

BBES Principal Lakekia Lewis said, “With Waterford, I love it because it assists the students with their foundational skills. It helps parents and teachers and students fill in the gaps where they have weaknesses. It’s animated and it’s fun. It’s definitely not boring.”

Lewis continued, “We like it because not only can they do it at school, but they can do it at home, as well. We are pleased with Waterford.”

Holly Hill resident Lakisha Goodwin said her daughter, Zy’Kera, has also enjoyed the early learning software as a student at Holly Hill Elementary School.

“She’s doing really excellent in her reading now. She’s doing very well from the beginning of school until now. She’s a principal list student. I’m very proud of her,” Goodwin said.

Zy’Kera said her reading and math has improved.

“I like that it helps me with my math, subtracting, and my reading,” Zy’Kera said.

“When I get a question wrong or right, it just pops up and says you got the question wrong or right. If I got my question wrong, it will help me with it, and then I will have to try it over again,” she said.

Zy’Kera continued, “If I don’t know how to spell duck, or I only know how to spell two letters, d and u, then it’s going to pop up c and k, and then it’s going to say the sound that I need to put in right then.”

Dr. Vickel Darby, OCSD’s instructional technology facilitator, said the interactive software has made a difference.

“This is our second-year implementation with the pre-K program, which is called Waterford Upstart, and we have seen some major gains. We were able to compare it to our i-Ready data, which is our intervention program, and we are noticing that our pre-K students and kindergarten students are reading on or above grade level,” she said.

Darby continued, “We have seen confidence soaring. We’re just excited that we’re seeing the gains because we want to make sure that we are a part of the process of transforming readers into leaders.”

Brookdale Assistant Principal Tonya Ramey said, “We were excited to host the group today. The group saw what our teachers and our students do every day, which is focus on literacy.”

Ramey said teachers at Brookdale facilitate within their small groups of students, “and the students are excited about Waterford and all of the learning that they do here each day.”

Christensen led a presentation at the Orangeburg County Convention Center where she talked about the science of reading.

“It helps us to understand how the brain learns to read, what happens inside the brain of a developing reader so that we can then align our instruction with that to support the brain development that helps children become proficient readers. … If we talk more about comprehension, we know that the building blocks for that really are vocabulary and background knowledge. So at a very early age, we want to help children be learning about the world around them, be learning new words, ideas and concepts, because that’s what’s going to predict their ability to be strong comprehenders in later years. So it all comes together,” she said.

Waterford.org partners with more than a dozen districts across South Carolina.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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