Growing SEEDS in district and charter schools: Learning Without Limits
Three in five Oakland children enter kindergarten without the social, emotional, language or literacy skills they need to succeed. In 2014, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation launched SEEDS of Learning, a relationship based professional development program that provides educators with strategies and tools to build social, emotional, language and literacy skills in young children. SEEDS is an acronym for the five tenets of the program: Sensitivity; Encouragement; Education; Development through Doing; Self-image Support.
SEEDS has helped more than 4,000 Oakland students make double-digit gains towards school readiness. “I think they really think about the whole child, and the strong foundations it takes to develop a child,” said Jennifer DeMara, the Early Literacy Coach and a former K-1 looping teacher at RISE Community School. “I really like how everything about a child’s needs is thought through, and the way they approach it so teachers and tutors can all be successful in applying it with students.”
SEEDS is now at more than 30 Oakland public schools, district and charter. In this post, we visit two schools: RISE (a district school) and Learning Without Limits (a charter school) to observe SEEDS in action, find out why educators love it and see how students are learning.
Learning Without Limits
Emmanuel is 5 and looks like a normal kindergartner, energetic and adorable. He says he likes to read animal books “because there is cute animals” in them. He’s working his way through a book called “First 100 Animals” — pointing out the lizard, the “dad” tiger, the “baby” puppy. To show that he’s really reading, and not just looking at the pictures, he points to a bird and sounds out the word. Starting with the B, he slowly works his way through to the D, sounding out each letter: “B-I-R-D.”
Emmanuel is a student at Learning Without Limits, an Education for Change (EFC) locally grown Oakland public school. On this weekday morning, Emmanuel and his classmates are in different groups around the room, reading. Students rotate and read at a table with another student or two, or in targeted reading practice groups with the teacher, Elana Silverman.
This time is what Silverman calls “the heart” of her class’s literacy program. Students’ reading levels, strengths and what they need to work on are assessed at the beginning of the year and then every couple of weeks throughout the year. “We have a lot of benchmarks to meet throughout the course of the year,” Silverman said, “so we’re leveling kids into groups based on what they know and what they need to work on, and then we work with those groups on different skills.”
Across the room, four students sit across from Esperanza Mendoza, the class’ tutor, who is also a parent at the school. Having a well-trained adult in the classroom to provide targeted skill-building small group and one-on-one interventions, is an important aspect of SEEDS. Mendoza is leading a reading intervention strategy, holding literacy cards as she works on sounds, phonics, letters — specific interventions, targeted to whatever the particular child’s needs.
Around the classroom, there are posters of frequently used words (“sight words”) students are gradually learning throughout the year. When they’re reading and come across a word they haven’t learned yet, they’re encouraged to say the sounds to figure it out. “Sound it out” and “stretch it out,” Silverman encourages students as, like Emmanuel, they work through a word. “The idea of learning the sight words and the sounds is that they can put it all together when they’re reading a book,” says Mendoza. “They know the sight words — they’ve been memorized — they’re sounding out the words, they put it together and they can read.”
Though Emmanuel and his classmates are kindergartners, when EFC began to use SEEDS, it was for its new TK classes. And it was working: at least 90 percent of TK students each year became kindergarten ready. “We saw these incredible outcomes for students coming out of TK into kindergarten,” said Dana Cilono, EFC’s Director of Early Elementary.
After two years though, Cilono said they realized a pattern: the TK students were entering kindergarten older and better prepared than the rest of the students; and though they were starting kindergarten ready, but then would plateau. So EFC partnered with the Rainin Foundation to support SEEDS tutors, including Mendoza, in kindergarten too. It didn’t stop there.
“As an organization we were like, ‘OK, the SEEDS of Learning program has been really helpful for TK and kindergarten, what else do we need to do in our kindergarten program (to accelerate progress) and how SEEDS support first grade,” Cilono. So now first graders who are struggling meet with tutors like Mendoza as well to build those foundational skills for literacy. “We didn’t really know how much SEEDS would impact not just our TK or kindergarten program but really our whole framework around early literacy,” she said. “It has really changed what we do through second grade.”
Cilono said an important aspect of SEEDS is the capacity building it allows schools: hiring and training parents and members of the community to serve as highly skilled tutors; Cilono is also a certified SEEDS trainer and coach, allowing her to develop others in the organization. When Cilono and her team are coaching teachers and tutors on implementing SEEDS, the social emotional learning (SEL) aspect of the work gets equal time. “They give feedback on both how the intervention is working and how the interaction is working,” Cilono said. “I think that balance is really important.”
Silverman agreed that it’s nice to have SEL built into the curriculum. “It’s, ‘OK, I’m going to teach them how to read books with a buddy.’ But in order to do that, it’s first ‘how do you sit with a buddy, talk to them, what do you do if they grab the book, how do you share,’” Silverman says. “All those skills are built into this curriculum.”
Silverman said Mendoza goes above and beyond to make sure the SEEDS work is also supported outside the classroom. She regularly texts parents or catch up with them at dismissal to update them on their child’s progress or what they need to work on. This takes relationship-building skills, patience and a lot of perseverance. Mendoza says it’s worth it, especially when she gets to see a student who previously hadn’t been making much progress, get it. “It makes me so happy,” she says. “Sometimes I’m crying.”