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Raising Scores, Opening Doors

A persistent parent. A determined school psychologist. A responsive administration and school board. When these forces converged in the rural Georgetown-Ridge Farm School District in Georgetown, IL, something extraordinary happened.

After implementing Wilson’s Tier 2 intervention program, Just Words®, to assist struggling middle school readers, the students’ standard test scores jumped dramatically, their reading gap with grade-level peers closed significantly, and the district embraced a new approach to teaching basic reading skills.

“Standard scores are generally very stable and predictable. If you raise the scores significantly, you’ve done something very substantial,” said School Psychologist Vern Bergkoetter.

“It makes a huge difference to catch the kids earlier and have them become functional readers earlier. We have kids who have moved out of needing an Individualized Education Program because of Just Words,” he said.

Vern, who has prior training in the Orton-Gillingham method, was drawn to Wilson’s programs, which are based on O-G principles, while working with a parent whose child was an older student with a learning disability.

Free tutoring through a community organization not only helped that student, but inspired widespread testing and the pursuit of Orton-Gillingham based instruction for other struggling readers within the district.

School officials discovered that many middle school students were not reading at grade level due to deficits in decoding and spelling skills. Working with Wilson accredited partner, Learning Techniques, Ltd., and its owner and Wilson Credentialed Trainer Dawn Hillstrom in Orland Park, school officials trained a group of faculty and staff members in Just Words.

The district, which serves about 1,000 K–12 students, launched its pilot program in Fall 2013 with 24 sixth- and seventh-grade students at Mary Miller Junior High School.

“When we started, our target group’s average standard score for overall decoding, sounding out real and nonsense words, was 84—the 14th percentile. When we finished, the average standard score was 94 after three semesters. That’s the 34th percentile. That’s a 20 percent jump, and that’s pretty astounding,” Vern said.

“There’s no question that something major happened with that group of kids. Statistically, that’s not random. We did everything by the book and we’re ever so glad. If there’s a message, it is do this program as recommended and with fidelity. It’s brilliant,” he said.

Based on the pilot program’s success, the district now uses Just Words as its middle school intervention program and provides the Wilson Reading System® for students in grades two and higher in need of intensive intervention.

This academic year, the district began rolling out Fundations® for its supplemental early education phonics program. Now used in K–1 classrooms, Fundations will expand to include second grade next year and third grade in 2018.

“It has nothing to do with the size of the district or whether kids are from the city or country. We are not a wealthy district and our budget is tight,” Vern said. “If your district can just do one thing, Just Words is doable without changing the whole core curriculum. This is just the best system I’ve ever seen for making sure kids have the ability to pick up on new skills.”