Marksville Elementary Instructional Coach Liza Jacobs and paraprofessional Jessica Gauthier assist 1st graders working in the Fast ForWord lab. The computer-based program is designed to improve reading skills by addressing the way students learn in what the program developers call “brain fitness” and “scientific learning.” {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Avoyelles School Board starts ‘Fast ForWord’ in 8 schools

There are many “intervention” programs available that promise schools and school districts they can improve students’ performance.
“Many of those are what I call ‘junk,’” Avoyelles Parish Special Education Supervisor Karen Williams said. “Fast ForWord is different. This program taps into brain functions and addresses the way students learn. What I like best is that it is research-based. The developers didn’t just pull numbers out of the air. They have research to back them up.”
The district paid $131,212 for the program this year and will have at least 1,320 students participating, Avoyelles School System Elementary Supervisor Celeste Voinche said. More students may be included later in the year.
The technology-based program was purchased through a cooperative effort of Special Education funds, federal Title I funds and Rapides Foundation literacy grant funds.
The cost includes eight days of training for teachers involved in the program, Voinche said.

IN 8 SCHOOLS
Teachers were trained in the program earlier this year prior to Fast ForWord being implemented in eight schools this month. The district’s two highest performing schools, LaSAS high school and Lafargue Elementary, are not participating in the program.
Voinche said the district paid for the site license for the program, which means all students in those schools could participate if the district had enough computers. The program is not based on a per-pupil cost.
Voinche said the program costs about $14,000 per school, not counting the training costs.
All 2nd graders in the district will go through the computer-based program. Participants in other grades were selected based on a review of student data -- grades, test scores, reading level, etc., Williams said.
Fast ForWord was created by Scientific Learning.
The company’s neuroscientists developed the program to improve language and literacy skills and to also improve brain functions such as memory, attention, information processing speed and sequencing.
The program can be used in grades K-12 and by students of all reading levels.
“Fast ForWord targets literacy and cognitive skills by building from the bottom up,” Williams said. It addresses phonics, word analysis, grammar, spelling, following directions and reading comprehension and improves vocabulary and higher-order thinking skills, she added.

THREE GOALS
Liza Jacobs, instructional coach at Marksville Elementary, said about 320 of the school’s students attend the 40-minute lab four days a week.
“We have three goals,” Jacobs said, “completion, attendance and participating in class. If they aren’t there, they can’t benefit from the program.
“If we had enough computers, I would want all of the students to participate,” she added.
Voinche said Fast ForWord is intended to meet the district’s strategic plan goal of improving students’ literacy, “because literacy is the key to all academic learning.”
While the program can benefit even advanced readers, the district is targeting those “needing an extra push” who are reading below grade level.
Scientific Learning claims that with consistent use of the program, students will improve their reading levels by one or two grade levels over 8-12 weeks.
“The students think they are having fun,” Williams said, “but they are actually retraining the way their brains learns.”
Jacobs said schools will be monitoring the effectiveness of the program.
Students took a test prior to starting the program to determine their reading level, vocabulary and comprehension skills. Their progress will be charted during the program.
If Fast ForWord delivers the promised results, Voinche said the district will buy the site licenses again next year.
“After two years, you are given a permanent license and no longer have to purchase the license each year,” she noted.
The only cost after that would be in maintaining, replacing or increasing computers for use in the program and in training new teachers in how to use the program.
An internet search on Fast ForWord finds many positive experiences by those using the program, but also some who say it is a waste of time and money.
Williams said she recently met with officials from several school districts that have used or are currently using Fast ForWord. Those who reported little or no improvement admitted that they did not use it consistently or as intensely as the developers recommended.

ST. MARY PARISH RESULTS
St. Mary Parish School Superintendent Leonard Armato is definitely a supporter of the program.
“We have used it for 12 years and it has been very successful,” Armato said. “I started it here when I was supervisor of special education services.”
Armato said St. Mary Parish “uses it for every elementary student. We try to introduce Fast ForWord to every student by 5th grade.”
Armato said St. Mary’s state assessment scores “were in the bottom third in the state before we started Fast ForWord. Now we are in the top third.”
Armato said the initial cost of the program is expensive, “but it is more expensive to buy intervention products that don’t work. Buying this one has saved us a lot of money over the years.”
He said the program may not help every student, “but there are other programs to catch those that may call through the cracks.
“There are many positive things in St. Mary Parish schools,” Armato continued. “Fast ForWord is one of them. It has helped make St. Mary Parish the highest-rated ‘B’ district in the state -- 8/10ths of a point from an ‘A’ -- and I believe we will be an ‘A’ next year.

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