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Pembina Hills rolling out six strategies to address COVID-related gaps in literacy and numeracy skills

Trustees approve withdrawal of $200,000 from operating reserve to fund strategies, but provincial money may also be available
New Pembina HIlls Sign
Pembina Hills trustees passed a motion at their June 9 meeting to approve the withdrawal of $200,000 from the operating reserve to fund six strategies to address COVID-related gaps in literacy and numeracy skills, as well as to build up collaboration between teachers.

In order to address gaps in literacy and numeracy skills arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the interruptions to education, the Pembina Hills School Division is withdrawing $200,000 from its operating reserve to provide schools with extra professional development time and staff resources in the 2021-2022 school year. 

Pembina Hills trustees passed a motion at their June 9 meeting approving the withdrawal from reserves after receiving a presentation from Assistant Supt. Of Education Services Mark Thiesen on six strategies the division will utilize in the coming year to address anticipated gaps in learning. 

While the division is drawing on reserves to fund these strategies, Thiesen noted that the province announced that $45 million in funding would be offered to schools to offer literacy and numeracy “interventions” for Grade 1-3 students identified as needing more help. 

The division does not yet have details about how this funding will be made available other than the fact that it will be distributed based on applications, but Thiesen suggested the strategies in this plan will likely align with the province’s criteria. 

“We can make adjustments and apply for provincial funds designated for this purpose as soon as we know the rules,” he said. 

Strategies in depth 

The first strategy is to provide schools with extra funding for substitute staff in order to hold four full-day sessions that will focus the division’s K-6 teachers on the five pillars of literacy. 

These sessions will be led by a contracted Literacy Facilitator, though school lead literacy teachers will have the opportunity to develop and practice aspects of the sessions where it makes sense. 

Deputy chair Wendy Scinski pointed out that the extra funding would account for only half the cost of sub days and asked if that would potentially deter schools from participating. 

Thiesen suggested that wouldn’t be the case, as the schools have healthy budgets already and any objections can be overruled by pointing out that fact. 

The next strategy is focused on students in Division 2, ie. Grades 4-6. The division will have the Lead Literacy Teacher at Barrhead Elementary School (BES) to act as a support for teachers with Division 2 students who are having difficulties with reading. 

Thiesen said the BES Lead Literacy Teacher would be called into situations specifically where the student’s reading problems are holding them back, not reading problems plus multiple other issues. 

To facilitate the extra demands on this staff member (and the associated costs), this strategy will provide sufficient funding for 0.2 of an FTE (full-time equivalent) position. 

Scinski again commented that the funding allocated for this strategy ($21,800) seemed a little lean, noting that the teacher would likely have expenses beyond their salary, such as travel. 

Thiesen suggested that leanness would be addressed in other strategies and expenses related to travel could be mitigated by using division vehicles. As well, they are limited by how much the Lead Literacy Teacher prefers to work. 

The next strategy again involves Barrhead Elementary but also Fort Assiniboine School. Thiesen said they will be piloting the use of “Three Ts” literacy assessments in designated grades at these two schools. 

The Three Ts refer to tests of silent reading efficiency and comprehension, tests of silent word reading fluency and tests of word reading efficiency. 

The funding associated with this strategy ($33,740) relates to the costs of the assessments and the sub time needed for teachers to analyze the data and "intervention support.” Specifically, the BES Lead Literacy Teacher will help teachers with interpreting the results and designing interventions. 

The next strategy is focused on building up the relationships among teachers. To achieve this, each site will be “topped up” with the equivalent of one sub day per K-9 classroom teacher (which comes out to about $36,140) so that teachers can collaborate with their peers or a school lead teacher. 

“We used to have a lot of opportunities for teachers to just spend a half-day together planning and looking at other students’ results and working on what they need to do to improve student achievement. We want to bring that back,” Thiesen said. 

The fifth strategy is focused on numeracy and increasing teacher confidence as math instructors by offering short sessions to teachers to adjust their instruction that are consistent with research-based principles.  

Admitting that he was generalizing somewhat, Thiesen said there was a tendency among elementary teachers to be hesitant about taking on full programs focused on changing how they teach math. 

“They find other things to do instead,” he said, adding that by offering short sessions, they are more likely to get involvement from teachers. 

The last strategy involves providing training to school-based Inclusive Education Lead Teachers (IELTs) at elementary schools throughout Pembina Hills, which will require a certain amount of sub time equivalent to $31,200. 

“This is a focus on developing capacity at the school site to support and coach teachers through the myriad of struggles ... that they have with the diverse range of students that they have,” he said. 

At the conclusion of the presentation, trustees commended Thiesen and his department for their work on these strategies. 

“I think this really goes a long way in trying to address the gaps in student learning, but as you said, also build collaboration,” said board chair Jennifer Tuininga.

Kevin Berger,

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