Carroll Lutheran School has success with reading, writing program

Coley Ross gets one-on-one teaching from Mandy Gilbart using the Wilson reading instruction method at Carroll Lutheran School.
Coley Ross gets one-on-one teaching from Mandy Gilbart using the Wilson reading instruction method at Carroll Lutheran School. (KEN KOONSSTAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

When Coley Ross took a required reading assessment before beginning eighth grade at Carroll Lutheran School in Westminster, she said she could not identify sounds beyond the letter "s" in the alphabet.

"I couldn't do it anymore — I didn't know any other sounds," Coley, 14, said. "I was just like 'I can't do this; I don't know anymore.'"


At that point, resource teacher Mandy Gilbart decided to use the Wilson Reading System — an intensive program developed by Wilson Language Training that is tailored to meet the individual needs of students who struggle with reading, writing and spelling — to bring Coley back up to speed with her peers.

Coley was one of eight students enrolled in the intensive program in the 2014-15 academic year, the first time the school offered it. Although the Wilson Reading System is used by Carroll County Public Schools, Carroll Lutheran is the only private school in Carroll that is now offering the program.

Gilbart received her certification through training provided by Susan Zirpoli, CCPS coordinator of special education. Zirpoli said the public school system provides training to private-school teachers seeking certification.

Coley said she attended Faith Christian School until seventh grade, before enrolling at Carroll Lutheran, a private Christian co-educational school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Although she was earning A's and B's in her classes, Coley's father, Gary Ross, said he began noticing his daughter struggling with reading when she was in third grade. According to Gilbart, she was diagnosed with a decoding reading disability in fourth grade.

"I think what was happening was — she was so smart, although she wasn't understanding what was happening in the class, she was memorizing and we never knew," Ross said, adding that evaluations Coley received at Faith Christian were excellent. "We never knew she had problems with reading."

Although Coley was in small classes at Faith Christian and received tutoring help, she said, the lessons would go over her head.

"I didn't really get what they were saying," she said.

In fifth grade, Coley said, she couldn't spell some of the words.

"As I got older … it just kept going by faster and stuff just kept flying by me, and I wouldn't know what anything was," Coley said, adding that her class had surpassed the point where words were being sounded out. Teachers expected their students to have mastered that aspect of reading and were assigning students book reports.

Gilbart, who is certified to teach the program, said she often works with older students who didn't successfully learn to read.

Students don't successfully learn to read for a multitude of reasons, Gilbart said. For example, it could be because of a learning disability or because they needed more-explicit instructions given in the classroom, Gilbart said.

Although Coley has not completed the program, Gilbart said she has seen much improvement in Coley's reading and writing abilities over the past year. Through the program, students are taught the rules of the English language and how it works, Gilbart said.

"It wasn't that people didn't teach it, but they didn't teach it as explicitly as she needed it," Gilbart said. "A kid might learn long vowel sounds and short vowel sounds, but if they didn't understand how they worked, then they can't decode unfamiliar words. … It just gets very explicit so they understand how to put the puzzle together."


Gilbart, who works with students either individually or in small groups of about two to three students, said that because it is considered a mastery curriculum, students don't move on until they understand the material at a level of 80 percent or better. Gilbart said she administers short assessments to students in each session.

"Every day, I assess her decoding for reading and her encoding for writing, and based on those assessments I know how to plan instruction for the next day," Gilbart said. "And based on those assessments I know when to move on to the next skill."

Because plans are tailored to the individual student, Gilbart said, students don't fall further behind.

"Every night, I go home and write lesson plans for the next day — normally a teacher will sit down at the end of the week and plan for the week ahead, but the Wilson plan gets done one night at a time," Gilbart said. "If she needs to do a unit in two weeks, we do it in two weeks; if she needs to do it in two days, we do it in two days — and I think that's a large part of what makes it successful, is that we meet kids where they are and give them what they need."

The school will continue offering the program next year. It also offered a program called Fundations, also provided to students in Carroll public schools, as a supplement to the regular reading curriculum last school year for all students in kindergarten through third grade, Gilbart said. Fundations, another program from Wilson Language Training, aims to prevent children from falling behind in reading and writing by giving them a strong foundation of the English language, with the goal of preventing students from needing more-intensive help in programs such as the Wilson system.

Gilbart said Coley's test scores have increased to the point at which she would no longer be labeled as having a learning disability.

"The impact has been amazing," said Coley's father, Gary Ross, moved to tears. "[She's] a great teacher. It's a great school and a great program. I can't say enough about it — it's like [watching] a caterpillar turn into a butterfly."