School leadership, you won’t want to miss this! Do you want your school or center to be a place of meaningful relationships between staff and students? A school that will prepare children for a lifetime of literacy so their students can truly flourish? 

Crisp County leadership did just that and the results speak for themselves. Crisp County, Georgia is a small county in the heart of southern Georgia. The county is home to about 23,000 residents, and 97.4% of Crisp County Primary students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Starting two years ago, Crisp County implemented a series of changes based on best practices and the latest research in brain science. The changes they saw in their students blew them away. The students flourished in a rich environment filled with positive relationships. They engaged in their learning in a way unlike anything the teachers and school leaders had seen before. But what’s more, extraordinary improvement in test results backed up what they were seeing firsthand, day-by-day in the classroom. The school hadn’t just changed, it had transformed. Crisp County Primary School was a completely different place and the students were on the path to a drastically different and more positive future – all in just two years.

How They Began:

Before we can dive deep into this story of total school transformation, let’s meet some of the main change agents: Monica Warren Ed.S., the Crisp County Director of Early Learning, Stephanie Payne, Academic Coach, and Salley Edwards M.Ed., the District Literacy Coach. Fortunately, we were given the opportunity to meet and interview Edwards to hear the story of Crisp County Primary and how it still exceeds all expectations.

When you visit Crisp County Primary School, you’ll notice you’re at a school that cares about the “whole child.” This is a school that is intently focused on constructing a reading brain for each child by 3rd grade. But it has not always been this way. Warren has battled the illiteracy crisis in her county for many years. Like most of the country, high percentages of students were not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. In partnership with the district superintendent, Warren and Edwards made a plan for change. 


What They Did:

As the District Literacy Coach, Edwards lead the vision for change and got teachers motivated to teach in a new way. Edwards and Payne conducted all monthly staff trainings, supported and collaborated with teachers in weekly lesson plan meetings, and provided one-on-one coaching in the classroom with lead teachers and paraprofessionals.

The secret to their incredible success? A change in the approach of classroom ecosystems, as well as language and literacy best practices in centers, read alouds, and small group instruction. With the support of leadership, Crisp County Primary School began their work in the Kindergarten classrooms. They began incorporating evidence-based Cox Campus practices into their ecosystem and curriculum.  Of course, the implementation of those practices took time. The year-by-year implementation process looked like this: 

Year 1: The immediate focus for Crisp County Primary was to revamp the classroom environment with developmentally appropriate practices and language building activities. Edwards said, “asking a child to sit on a rug in large group instruction for 45 minutes is not developmentally appropriate. It caused a lot of behavioral problems and office referrals.” So, they made changes to the schedule and routines. Crisp County also added a “Language Building Center” where they incorporated the Cox Campus TALK strategy, and included target/focus vocabulary (or what they call “fancy words”) into their meaningful conversations with their students. 

Year 2: Edwards focused on equipping the teachers by coaching and supporting them in implementing two Cox Campus strategies: START reads and REAL Time reads. They modified the strategies to include all of their Kindergarten standards too! Along with transforming their read alouds, Edwards and the Crisp County educators put emphasis on phonemic awareness through small group instruction, intentional planning, and frequent progress monitoring. 

All coaching support was around their shared plan to improve overall culture, and language and literacy instruction in the classroom. The teachers already believed children have deeper learning through experiences rather than worksheets, so it was easy for them to “buy in” to changing their approach to Center Time to make it more meaningful. Teachers were excited when they heard their children start using target vocabulary and responding to questions more critically. The children’s progress just added more fuel to Crisp County’s teachers’ fire! 

Here are a few pictures of the teachers hard at work hand-making their “Hungry Monsters” for their phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge activities:


“I’m just so proud of these teachers, I just can’t even stand it. These teachers jumped in with both feet. They tried something new, they took a risk, and it has paid off. It is possible to do this work and it does not have to take years to do it to see change.” – Edwards

How They Measured Change and Progress:

At the end of the day, administrators still need to see improvements in test scores, not just firsthand accounts of student success. And Crisp County was able to see change here too! Let’s take a peek into Crisp County Primary School outcomes for the class of 2031 – the first class to receive focused teaching on language and phonemic awareness. This data is based on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), a popular assessment to measure receptive vocabulary. 

If you take a look at the two charts, you will see improvement in every single section. The average growth from Pre-K registration to end of Kindergarten is 10 points! 

Looking Back: Challenges and Success Stories

Formal instructional time wasn’t the only area Crisp County made the effort to radically change, they also made changes to Center Time. With support and training from Edwards, teachers began spending more time on the floor in deep, meaningful conversations with the children. Center Time environments also changed. Teachers switched out the centers more frequently, tied the centers to their themes and focus books, and created a more stimulating and engaging experience. 

While the teachers were excited to start their revamped center time, they faced some obstacles. “Our greatest challenge… hands down, money,“ says Edwards. “While we were able to purchase books with instructional funds, all the materials for Center Time were placed on the shoulders of the teachers.”

How did they overcome the barrier of lacking resources? Creativity, problem-solving, determination, and hard work. Motivated by the responses they were seeing in their children, Crisp County teachers poured themselves into collecting and making materials for center time and small groups. The home living and dramatic play centers were missing essential pieces like play kitchens, pretend food, baby dolls, etc. Edwards made her team of teachers promise to not spend their own personal money unless they went to buy items at the Dollar Store. She joked, “We all ended up becoming hoarders for the classroom.” They collected donations and whatever they could find to build their children’s experiences for rich language activities and conversations. One teacher even transformed a countertop in her classroom into a dream play kitchen by only using construction paper, fabric, and art supplies. Talk about a teacher being ALL IN!

Looking Ahead


What’s next for Crisp County? They’ve identified that comprehension is an area of need. They’re explicitly teaching comprehension and metacognition around reading, but primarily focusing on vocabulary. 

This work is not stopping with Kindergarten either. They are continuing to build their language and literacy efforts in the older grades, focusing on building vocabulary through social studies, science, and even math!



Next Steps for YOUR School

Do you want your school/center to have the same transformation and success as Crisp County Primary School? Leadership can change the school ecosystem, empower teachers, build teams, facilitate the acquisition of resources, safeguard time and create a culture of achievement and accountability in their schools. If students can’t read, schools will fail. Watch the course Leadership for Literacy to learn more! 

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