The yearly release of results from our state’s standardized STAAR exam provides Texas families, leaders, and voters an opportunity to learn how our schools are doing, and where especially great work is happening. With finalized scores arriving last week, a number of insights can be gained, but one thing is already clear: Lancaster ISD is emerging as a model for the state in growing 3rd grade reading scores, a foundational milestone for later academic success.
Despite having the highest percentage of students considered economically disadvantaged in the county – over 85% of the student body – Lancaster ISD had a 20 percentage point increase in 3rd grade reading scores from the previous year. Importantly, this was also 8 percentage points above 2019 proficiency rates, demonstrating Lancaster students are recovering from the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is a trend – Lancaster’s growth in this metric has exceeded both Dallas County and the state’s since 2012.
How did Lancaster ISD achieve this incredible growth?
According to Lancaster’s Superintendent, Dr. Katrise Perera, this success didn’t happen overnight or over the course of just one year. “This has been an accumulation of things that Lancaster has been putting into place in order to see the growth of our students.” In fact, for these third graders, the work started 5 years ago, when many of them started pre-K.
As Rosa Parks/Millbrook Elementary Principal Yvonne Thornton said, “When you talk about that 20 point jump [in reading scores], we are seeing in some cases, or in many cases, the fruit of the pre-K program.” Lancaster was one of the first districts in Dallas County to offer pre-K for both three and four year olds in a bold, research-backed move to establish a strong foundation for its students and improve academic success.
By getting kids in the classroom by age three, Lancaster ISD hopes that it can put the structures in place for students to excel. For Rosa Parks/Millbrook Elementary 4th grade reading teacher, Cheryl Scott, it’s working. “Our students get that early foundation and then they know the expectation that we have here at Rosa Parks,” she explained. “The routine, the expectation, it’s all the same.”
The Foundation for Reading
This strong pre-K push built the foundation for learning, but as Superintendent Perera said, “If you can't read, you don't have literacy and numeracy, it's really hard to do anything else.” That’s why Lancaster ISD invested in data-driven reading infrastructure for its students based on a balanced literacy approach.
Principal Thornton made clear – “[Data] guides everything that we are doing.” Monthly running records inform the school’s instructional palette and built-in intervention time called What I Need or WIN Time provides students an opportunity to get feedback and grow in their reading ability.
For Scott, Texas’ Reading Academies – established by House Bill 3 (86 R) to ensure elementary teachers are trained in the science of teaching reading – were essential. She said, “Going through the Reading Academy, that literacy foundation was a big help.” For her, it served as a critical reminder that “these are the skills that we need to go back to and make sure that the students are actually able to be successful with.”
It also filled gaps to make Lancaster ISD teachers even stronger. According to Superintendent Perera, “Reading Academies have definitely allowed [our teachers] to learn things that they may not have learned as a part of their certification programs or their educational programs in college.”
Students needed this strong reading foundation more than ever given the setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When Principal Thornton welcomed her teachers back post-pandemic, she was clear: “Our third graders, when we truly look at it, are going to come in and will be functioning as first graders. Our first graders are pre-Kers. Our fifth graders may be second or third.” As a result, she set an ambitious goal for Rosa Parks/Milbrook Elementary: “one team, one vision, one mission, one goal, and growth is the goal.”
With 20 percentage points of growth in 3rd grading reading, it’s safe to say that goal was exceeded – but that wasn’t necessarily a surprise. As Superintendent Perera put it, “I'm never surprised [by] what kids can do. It's really about the expectations of the adults. Because if you provide them what they need and set that expectation and build that relationship and really know how they learn and grow, it's not a surprise. It's an expectation.”
The adults at Lancaster ISD set high expectations and laid the groundwork for student success with a strong focus on pre-K enrollment and reading infrastructure. The districts of Dallas County – brought together in the Dallas County Learning Community (DCLC) – are now taking Lancaster’s lead and expanding pre-K access, with 49% of all eligible pre-K students now enrolled countywide.
As Commit Superintendent-In-Residence Dr. Jeannie Stone said, “What we’re seeing in Lancaster is exactly what we need to celebrate and replicate across Dallas County. That’s why we brought the DCLC here for our first site visit. I’m so excited to watch all our students thrive when we commit to learning from each other’s successes.”