Ten second-grade ESL students at McVey Elementary co-authored a book with their teacher titled “Finding Friendship” in 2018. The school was recently honored for its innovative approach to promoting literacy.

An innovative approach to promoting literacy has earned Joseph M. McVey Elementary School national recognition.

The school, located on Janice Drive in Newark, was one of nearly 100 public schools throughout the country to be named a National Elementary and Secondary Education Act Distinguished School.

McVey, which has about 365 students, was recognized for closing the achievement gap between students over consecutive years. Former principal David Wilkie, who was recently promoted to a district-level administrative position, attributes this success to the school’s emphasis on promoting literacy among students and their families.

“We just changed the culture,” Wilkie said. “Everything we were doing was around literacy and love for reading and writing.”

For a number of years, the school has collaborated with the International Literacy Association, a global advocacy group based in Newark, to identify strategies for the school to promote literacy on every level. Carrice Cummins, a Louisiana Tech University professor, has led professional development centered on literacy for teachers at McVey.

For Cheri Goetcheus, McVey’s academic dean, the importance of literacy comes through at every level, not just in English class. Even in classes like art and music, she said, students are encouraged to read and write in a way that catches their attention and expands their thinking.

“You have those children that struggle with the reading and writing piece, but if they can attach it to a musical or an art piece, it might just spur them on,” Goetcheus said. “When they start to get that glimmer, that glow, it really catches on and carries over into other content areas.”

Wilkie explained that sometimes administrators get caught up in test scores and other traditional measures of academic achievement. The pivot toward prioritizing reading, he said, was a way to re-center love of learning at the core of the student experience.

Teachers were not just encouraged to embed reading in their curricula, but also created book clubs to keep students engaged. The school put in a Little Free Library hutch outside, where students and families could take and return books at their convenience. Field trips, visiting speakers and school-wide activities all centered around reading and writing.

Wilkie and his staff saw a real change in student behavior.

“They’re reading while they’re at specials, they’re reading in the cafeteria during lunch, you see them carrying books up and down the hallways,” he said.

He remembered that students would previously avoid writing lessons by going to the bathroom and distracting themselves, adding, “We saw a decrease in that — kids were not running to the bathroom and hiding, they were engaged in the learning.”

The school completed a book drive, largely using Facebook to crowdsource donations from family and friends of the school community. The drive netted over 10,000 books, almost all of which were distributed out to students.

Asia Ali-Hawkins, McVey’s new principal, said putting books directly in the hands of students and their families is an important part of the school’s work to close the achievement gap between students.

“For students that are considered a lower socioeconomic [status], you don’t find books in the home,” she said. “An initiative like that equalizes the playing field, to provide resources for those families that need them.”

In addition to school-wide initiatives, some staff sought to specifically support those students who might face additional barriers to achieving literacy.

Goetcheus recalled a project in which about a dozen English-learner second graders wrote their own books, spending about two months developing a story and illustrations before ultimately getting their creations published.

“The children wrote their own books,” Goetcheus said. “It was amazing when they came in the mail and they were able to share them with their peers. They went on a book tour.”

The various literacy initiatives translated into consistently heightened academic performance for McVey’s students, which earned them recognition as an ESEA Distinguished School.

Only two schools per year from each state can be selected, and over 450 schools have been recognized since the program was established in 1996. Last year, Christiana High School and Middle School Honors Academy won the ESEA recognition, and in 2018 the two state winners were Etta J. Wilson Elementary School and West Park Place Elementary School.

Normally, representatives from the winning schools would attend a conference, which this year will take place virtually. The school will also receive a $10,500 award. While the staff has yet to determine how that money will be spent, Wilkie expects it to go toward enhancing some of the school’s existing literacy programs and broadening the possibilities for future initiatives.

Wilkie said the recognition is important for staff, particularly amid a challenging school year.

“It was what they really needed, because what they’re going through now is tough — it takes a lot of work to teach remotely and do hybrid,” he said. “It was just an affirmation for them, but also a celebration in this difficult time.”

Ali-Hawkins thanked Wilkie for his work at McVey, and said that while they will miss him at the school, they are excited to see him expand his leadership in Christina.

“Wilkie was the principal for nine years. He put so much into this work, and it was hard to see him go,” she said. “He’s done a good job, so now let him influence not just one school, McVey — now he’s in a position to positively impact our schools across the district.”

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