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Spotlight Pennsylvania: Courage and leadership, light the way for Panther Valley

It takes courageous leadership to stay the course with a laser focus on doing what’s best for students. Robert Palazzo, principal at Panther Valley Elementary School in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania, boldly made the decision to bring change. He turned to 95 Percent Group and let the science of reading lead the way.

Panther Valley Schools, Pennsylvania

Student Snapshot

  • Title I School in Nesquehoning, PA (NW of Philadelphia in the Poconos region of PA)
  • Grades PreK–3
  • 650 students
  • 80% free and reduced lunch
  • 35% minority
  • 20% Special Education

Challenge: The students were standing still

It’s hard to admit when you’ve made a decision that isn’t working the way you hoped it would. It’s even more difficult when it involves the urgent issue of foundational literacy skills for children and the teachers that are working tirelessly for the cause. But that’s what happened when Robert Palazzo realized after about 18 months that the balanced literacy approach his district had invested in just wasn’t cutting it.

“Week after week,” Palazzo said, “we saw that the same students were not successful using a traditional basal or balanced literacy approach. We were assessing every five days (Fridays: word reading, spelling, comprehension) so we really had to cut instruction time down to four days because we were testing on Fridays. We were losing an entire literacy block to assessment every week with this program.”

And that wasn’t the only red flag.

His teachers, he also noted, were having difficulty articulating to parents and to each other what the students were actually learning or working on, and what kind of progress they were making. Amanda Kusko, 3rd grade teacher in her 8th year at Panther Valley, reported, “I knew what we had been doing wasn’t working. The curriculum we were using didn’t have phonics instruction, and we saw a dramatic decline in kids’ learning without the phonics piece.”

And then, Palazzo began learning about the science of reading. One of his teachers actually showed up at his door after reading a book prominently featuring the research. “This all makes sense now,” she said.  “We have to do better.”

Solution: Literacy change is coming

Palazzo knew what he had to do. He called a meeting with his faculty and staff. He told them he had made a mistake—their current program wasn’t moving the needle. They needed to try something else. “This is not working,” Palazzo said. “Our students are not making progress.”

But they still faced an obstacle: the funds for any new literacy curriculum were gone. Luckily a business in town—whose foundation was already supporting Panther Valley—was able to help. In a conversation about the lack of progress for students, school leaders were able to work with the foundation to reframe the way their donations were channeled.

Between these funds and available ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief set aside by congress in March of 2020), Panther Valley was able to purchase the foundational phonics and literacy curriculums they needed.

One of the solutions Palazzo and his team of educators turned to was products from the One95™ Literacy Ecosystem. All students in K–3 classrooms would begin using 95 Phonics Core Program® (95 PCP®) as their core phonics curriculum. Students in grades 1–3 in need of further support would receive small group intervention using the 95 Phonics Chip Kit™ (95 PCK™). In grade 3, students would also receive instruction with Multisyllable Routine Cards (MSRC). The district’s Title I reading specialist would use 95 Phonics Lesson Library™ (95 PLL™) to serve 120 students as well.

We talk a lot about fostering a love of reading—but you have to be able to understand what you’re reading to love reading. Decoding is the beginning of this.

Robert Palazzo


Though each product in the One95 Literacy Ecosystem serves a different need, all share a common language: the same routines, procedures, and descriptions. This makes the experience across products and tiers of instruction as seamless as possible for students and teachers. Depending on the level of support needed, a student may have up to 75 minutes a day of explicit phonics instruction.

Palazzo weighed in on this. “95 Percent Group has allowed for a common language. For example, everyone knows that skill 6 is regular vowel teams—whether you’re doing the 95 Phonics Screener for Intervention™ (PSI™), the Phonics Lesson Library, or the Phonics Chip Kit—we are able to clearly speak about a student’s skill level and what they need and intervene at a high level.”

Reading results: The proof is in the numbers

The immediate student growth was confirmation that the team at Panther Valley had made the right choice. Palazzo shared their WIN (What I Need) time data to demonstrate the incredible progress happening across the board:

  • 1st grade: 20% of 1st graders assessed in October were decoding on grade level according to the skills assessed in the PSI. This number soared to 70% on grade level in March. This is a 250% increase in students reading on grade level after 5 months.
  • 2nd Grade: went from 28% decoding on grade level in October to 58% in February.
  • 3rd Grade: went from 32% of students decoding on grade level in October to 57% in February.
  • Students that have mastered all 15 skills on the PSI (this represents through the end of the 3rd grade core curriculum/data up to March):
    • 2nd grade: from 0  → 30 students in 5 months
    • 3rd grade: from 11 students to above 70 students or 40% of the grade
  • Students who had not yet mastered Skill 2 on the PSI (this is equivalent to reading at a beginning 1st grade level):
    • 2nd grade from 43% of students in September down to only 9% by February
    • 3rd grade from 16 % of students in September down to almost 0% by February

Now we know: explicit instruction is what matters.

Robert Palazzo


Students are excited to learn

The students in first through third grades at Panther Valley are on a new path, and it’s evident in all that they do throughout their day. “You can see the confidence and the excitement in the students—they are excited to be knowledgeable,” reported Palazzo of the students in his school. “Like everything that kids do and are proud of, they are taking ownership of their learning. They want to move forward.” He continued, “We talk a lot about fostering a love of reading—but you have to be able to understand what you’re reading in order to love reading. Decoding is the beginning of this.”

Maria Wozniak and Amanda Kusko, first and third grade teachers respectively, commented on what it was like to begin this work. “It was rough in the beginning of third grade,” Kusko admitted. “My students didn’t have the phonics skill set to do grade level work. But the 95 Percent Group curriculum is so structured and routine-based, they really picked up on it quickly. They were teaching me about the different products in the beginning!”

“Now,” she added, “especially since they have been using these materials for a year or so, they know what they’re doing. Wozniak also chimed in, “the students are really internalizing the spelling patterns and rules and applying them in other places—they even point them out to me when they see something they’ve learned! ”

Palazzo stands out in the hall when students are moving between classrooms to remind them to walk. He laughed as he recalled when one student replied, “I can’t! I have to run! I’m so excited to learn!”

Teachers and students are moving forward together

Although it can be difficult to pivot and try something you aren’t familiar with, many teachers at Panther Valley Elementary understood that their students weren’t getting the skills they needed to read on grade level. Wozniak (grade 1) and Kusko (grade 3) were on board immediately to implement 95 Percent Group’s materials—even reporting that they began learning about rules and nuances they hadn’t previously been aware of. “It’s made us better teachers,” they both agreed. “When you are better able to fully explain why letters make the sounds they do in certain spelling patterns, it gives kids an explanation behind what they are learning.”

Palazzo agreed. “The teachers’ journey has been incredible. We are now doing targeted intervention on a much bigger scale. Explicit Instruction is lost when you’re only doing small groups. And now we know: explicit instruction is what matters.”

Wozniak can confirm that she liked the simplicity of methods like guided reading, but as time passed and students weren’t making progress, she, too, understood that there was something missing. “We had all these great books and great materials, but kids weren’t actually learning to read.”

Then they began using 95 Percent Group’s materials. Wozniak described the immediate ease of working with the suite of products. “I really liked it because there was little to no teacher prep. It was all there: the workbooks, the lessons—it’s easy to use and it’s very systematic. Everything builds on the previous lesson.”

Both are incredibly happy about the growth they’ve seen in their classrooms across the board, and are excited for the future with 95 Percent Group. Kusko said that she’s most excited about the structured and explicit teaching of phonics starting from kindergarten. “I’m excited to get that first group of third grade students that have had phonics starting in kindergarten, with no interruptions.”

Wozniak agreed. “Even those [1st graders] that haven’t hit grade level yet are making progress. There’s been so much improvement—with their writing too! Where we get them, and where we take them to—it’s amazing.”

Student Spotlight:

Kusko described having a student come to her 3rd grade class in November. “He was a young-for-the-grade English Language Learner, and he couldn’t identify vowels or consonant sounds when he first started. Now,” she says,  “he’s up to Skill 5 on the PSI (Long Vowel Silent-e). His fluency is slow, but he’s moving right along.”

Wozniak has also seen some incredible leaps to on or above grade-level reading. “At the beginning of the year [DIBELS screening],” she reported, “most kids were red (below grade level). Everyone has made progress, but there are two kids that have gone from red all the way to blue and scored at 8 or 9 on the PSI—both indicating they are reading above grade level.”

Learn More

Are you interested in learning about how you can bring an effective and efficient structured literacy approach, grounded in the science of reading, to your school or district? Contact us today.

Related resources: Check out where Panther Valley’s success was covered in the New York Times and on CNN!

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