Cullman City Primary School wins national grand prize for excellence in LETRS reading program

First grade teacher Shannon Dutton delivers her gratitude speech after award announcement (Heather Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Monday afternoon, representatives from 27 schools and school districts across the country tuned in to a virtual ceremony as a panel of judges in the state of Washington announced the winners of the first-ever Dr. Louisa Moats Award for Excellence in Implementing the Science of Reading. With Cullman City Primary School (CCPS) one of six finalists, parents, students, teachers and administrators at the school gathered and watched the ceremony together and celebrate making it to the final selection.

The LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) program was created by literacy experts Dr. Carol Tolman and Dr. Louisa Moats and developed to create more flexible and effective ways to teach reading and spelling to students from pre-K to fifth grade. To advance Dr. Moats’s legacy, the Louisa Moats Award was created in 2020 for the purpose of recognizing schools that have made innovative and transformative improvement in student reading skills. The award ceremony recognized six finalists, then chose two runner ups and a grand prize winner based on the award applications. Applicants were given the option of writing an essay for their school or submitting a five-minute video, and CCPS chose the second option.

The video highlighted the classroom of Shannon Dutton, the first-grade teacher who found the award competition and suggested that the school apply. In the video, Principal Tricia Culpepper and Dutton explained how the LETRS program has been implemented throughout the school, how the theories regarding the science of reading have been put into practice and the results that the school has seen in all students, including those who are learning English as a second language and those whose families could not afford early childhood reading resources. This video was awarded the grand prize because it was the most “concise, specific representation of the results envisioned when LETRS has taken hold in a school,” and both Culpepper and Dutton were overjoyed at the recognition of the faculty’s hard work. As part of the grand prize, CCPS will receive an engraved trophy and certificate of award, 30 LETRS Champion t-shirts and journals and a cash prize of $5000.

After announcing the results, Dr. Moats explained that she and the other judges chose CCPS as the grand prize winner because of the evidence of “rock-solid leadership” within the school and the work that is able to be done by a Title 1 school (meaning at least 40% of the students come from low-income families). “This is not a privileged community where students all come to you having solid foundations in reading,” Moats stated. “You are building that, and you know the value of getting in early and doing the right thing. One of the things that I really loved hearing about was your equal emphasis on the foundations of reading and oral language comprehension, as well as your statement that teacher efficacy is at an all-time high.” She finished her speech saying that what CCPS had demonstrated was what LETRS trainers and experts have hoped to achieve for nearly two decades of the program.

After the announcement, Culpepper and Dutton both delivered speeches of gratitude for the award. In an emotional speech, Culpepper stated that the LETRS program had been “transformational for the staff and for the kids” in the past two years that it has been used at the school. She also stated that the new knowledge the faculty and staff gained from the LETRS training had been very affirming for the good practices that the school had in place previously, while also pushing them to change other approaches to “align more closely with the science of reading.” Following Culpepper, Dutton gave a short speech as well, saying, “It’s been remarkable to watch our reading instruction and student progress flourish over the past few years using the LETRS instructions. We couldn’t be more excited for our future as we continue to develop bold and confident readers.”

In an interview after the ceremony, Culpepper stated that this award meant a lot to her and her staff. “It’s very affirming to our teachers to have this award. They’ve worked really hard to implement the science of reading over the last year, and it aligns with the Alabama Literacy Act to make sure students are prepared for their required literacy assessment at the end of third grade. What we want to do is lay a solid foundation for our kindergarten and first grade students so they’re ready to take that type of assessment and so they’ll be confident and productive readers.” In the video submitted for the competition, she and Dutton highlighted aspects of reading and spelling instruction, such as the phonics and phonemics activities and the immersive English reading program for ESL students. She also said that the school will proudly display the award when they receive it, though they have not yet decided what to do with the cash prize other than putting it into a fund for the school.

Dutton gave a few statements after the ceremony as well, and described the process of entering the competition. “Erica Rutherford is our reading coach here, and she brought LETRS to our school about two years ago. One teacher from each “pod” was chosen to be part of the first cohort for LETRS here, including myself, and it’s been really awesome,” she said. “LETRS has completely transformed our literacy instruction here at CCPS. Personally, after graduating college, I had very little knowledge on how to truly teach reading, especially with specific issues that may arise with students. However, after receiving LETRS training, my confidence surged for my instruction.” Dutton stated that using a variety of methods to implement LETRS in her classroom has resulted in a 68% student growth and improvement between the beginning of the school year and the current date. When asked what this award meant to her as an educator, she answered, “It’s a lot. This is actually my third year at CCPS. I began this journey right after my first year teaching, and I’ve become a lot more confident in what I’m doing. I’m seeing the data, I’m seeing the student growth and that’s what it’s really all about. It’s not about the title, not about the cash prize or t-shirt, but truly seeing my students succeed.”

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Heather Mann