Words in Sight

In Aldine ISD, teachers and leaders join forces to boost student reading skills.


That's how Patty Willis felt 3 years ago.

As the principal of Garcia-Leza Primary in Houston’s Aldine ISD, Willis was responsible for giving her pre-K and Kindergarten students a solid foundation in literacy to set them up for success in elementary school. 

But in 2021, only 36 percent of Garcia-Leza’s Kinder students were reading at grade level...

...among the lowest levels in the district.

The next year, that number rose to 56 percent. Better, but still not where they needed to be. 

She was falling short and didn’t know why.

Our teachers are phenomenal teachers. They're doing the curriculum. What can we do? Where do we go? I was at a loss. I was just grasping at straws to get the problem solved.
Patty Willis, Principal

A weight lifted 

In the summer of 2022, Willis brought a team together to join her at a leadership program attended by 149 schools across Texas at The Holdsworth Center – her assistant principal, literacy coach and one of her best teachers.

Almost immediately, the weight she was carrying began to lift.

When we sat down as a group, the synergy, I thought, ‘Okay, I'm not alone. We're here and things are going to happen. Things are going to change.’ It was just like magic.
Patty Willis, Principal

Together, the team worked through the problem using continuous improvement methods,  guided by Holdsworth’s expert faculty – Dr. Liz City and Dr. Irvin Scott, professors in the Harvard School of Graduate Education. While common in other sectors, continuous improvement methods are often foreign to educators, City said.

“It’s very common for people outside of schools to point fingers and say, ‘You have a problem,’ or for leaders to demand teachers implement outside solutions without ever consulting them,” City said. “It’s much less common for people inside schools to name these problems themselves, engage in a process of understanding what’s contributing to the problem and explore their role in fixing it.”

Through Holdsworth, the team leaned on the expertise of the school’s literacy coach, Lochie Welch, and Rachel Kennedy, a veteran Kindergarten teacher. 

The previous year, Kennedy had taught the district’s new literacy curriculum using scripts and following protocols with precision. The new curriculum was strong – overall, students made progress. But in Kennedy's class, student scores were the lowest in the school. She knew improvements were needed.

I'm in awe of Rachel. The caring and the concern she has for every single one of the kids—I was at a loss. If she's such a great teacher, where's the problem? I knew automatically I wanted her with us at Holdsworth because if we could make any changes, it was going to be with her.
Patty Willis, Principal

‘My light was lit’

Normally reserved, being with her team at Holdsworth gave Kennedy the courage to voice the problems she saw. Whole group instruction might work fine for some students, but her kids needed more individual attention. Sticking closely to the script didn’t allow her to use all the tools and tricks she had learned over 25 years of teaching. 

That kind of hurts a teacher when we can't get creative in our classrooms, especially a Kindergarten classroom. You do have to be creative to make it fun or engaging when it's not working in the script.
Rachel Kennedy, Teacher

Following Holdsworth’s advice to “think big but act small,” the team decided to test out potential solutions with the 33 students in Kennedy’s class, with a goal to get 70 percent at or above grade level in reading by the end of the year. 

Kennedy dedicated more time to small-group instruction. She focused on meeting each child where they were and taking them through the curriculum step by step. 

“My light was lit,” Kennedy said. “I went from feeling defeated to feeling recharged again.”

A sweet victory

While Kennedy was testing out a few different solutions, all teachers in the building increased time for small-group instruction. 

This was giving (teachers) an opportunity to actually show what they could do and use some of their skills in creating some lessons.
Lochie Wells, Literacy Coach

By mid-year, they could see it was working. No one could have imagined how well. 

When the final numbers came in, the team was at Holdsworth for a learning session, sitting in a communal lounge in one of the residence buildings. 

Overall, 87 percent of Garcia-Leza’s 400 Kindergarten students were reading at or above grade level.

In Kennedy’s class, it was 100 percent. 

They had ascended from the lowest in the district to the highest in the space of one year. 

It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is surreal. I'm getting cold chills just thinking about it. It was just a wonderful way to culminate the journey from Holdsworth.
Patty Willis, Principal

For Kennedy, the victory was extra sweet. One year earlier, she couldn’t fathom why Willis had asked her to join the Holdsworth team. Now she understood. 

“She saw potential in me that was beat down, that used to be there. It means the world to me that she asked me to be a part of this group and that she saw that I want to be here for the kids,” Kennedy said. 

I feel like I'm a stronger, more confident person. If I have a problem, I can offer my solution of how I'm going to fix it and make it work for me and my students and what's best.
Rachel Kennedy, Teacher

A powerful experience 

With such dramatic results, everyone wanted to know how they did it. 

The team has no trouble describing their literacy strategies in technical terms that other educators understand. But at the core, it was the time they spent at Holdsworth ideating, planning and reflecting, drawing upon their knowledge and experience that made the difference.

It’s not something that happens often in the harried, day-to-day existence of a busy campus. But it’s powerful. 

Holdsworth is a place where you can feel comfortable to be yourself as an educational leader.

It gave us the tools that we needed to step back and focus on the problem in a different way. It allowed us the opportunities to make mistakes, to reflect, to change. If everybody had that Holdsworth experience, I can't even imagine—we'd be the top performing state in the United States. The possibilities are limitless.
Patty Willis, Principal

This story is part of our
2023 Impact Report.

This story is part of our
2023 Impact Report.