Voices from the Region spotlights stakeholders in Region 11 and their work to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. The R11CC is privileged to collaborate with and share the insights of Barney Lacock, principal of Wind River and Crowheart elementary schools in Wyoming’s Fremont County School District 6. The two schools, located about 45 minutes from each other, are pilot schools in the R11CC’s project to develop and implement a comprehensive K–3 reading program to improve outcomes for struggling readers.

Tell us about your professional role, responsibilities, and goals in your current position.

As principal, I’m the building leader and the instructional leader. This is my 14th year, so I’ve had the opportunity to watch former students of mine walk across the stage at high school graduation and see them go on to college, into the workforce, or the military. At the end of the day, we’re trying to educate and raise successful citizens who have become adults in their own right. So my goal is not just reading scores or math scores. I really think about the whole person and who we’re developing to live within our society and our local community.

What’s your background in education and what drew you to this work?

I was a nontraditional student who did not go directly from high school to college. I worked in the timber industry for a few years and then decided that I wanted to do something different, becoming the first person in my immediate family to attend college. I had been working with youth in some other capacities and really enjoyed that, so that’s what drew me to getting a degree in education.

I started as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. Then I had the opportunity to team-teach an 8th grade class, where I was involved in all facets of our students’ education and that broadened my outlook as far as what students needed. Later on, I got involved in federal programs at another district, naturally gravitating into that because of my propensity to look at systems and think about things bigger than my classroom. While there, I began to work on school improvement plans and a lot of data and grant work. I was involved in the body-of-evidence work that Wyoming supported for a while, and through that I met Joe Simpson who was working at the Wyoming Department of Education. I eventually earned a principal endorsement, and I specifically came to Wind River because they were a high-functioning district and I wanted to work with strong educational leaders who could help me grow.

How has the Comprehensive Center supported your work?

When my teachers and I began to build an MTSS here at Wind River, we realized that language was an issue for our students. We tried a variety of solutions, and then I became aware of this R11CC project. Joe put us in contact with the University of Wyoming’s Literacy Research Center & Clinic (LRCC) folks. They gave us an overview of their needs assessment, which addressed all five components of reading: comprehension, vocab, phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency. A year later we became a pilot school.

The needs assessment was just incredible. I gave them our existing data and they spent a couple days here meeting with teachers and interviewing staff. They came back with a really robust report. I’m so impressed with it—if nothing else happened that was worth it. What they saw in the vocab competencies was exactly what we were seeing, so that aligned nicely and confirmed our thinking. Because of this, we chose as a school to focus on strengthening students’ vocabulary.

The LRCC gave us guidance and research and quality ideas. We identified how we were going to approach the work, how they would model it, how we would push it out to staff, and how we attach that to our PLC work. We eventually put all the work from our book study, presentations, modeling, and debriefings into a framework. Now that we’re in our second year of the pilot, the framework has been useful in helping bring our new staff up to speed. We will continue to add to it as we grow. That’ll just be our operating document.

In general, the project has proved to be a great resource. Joe put us in touch with specialists like Sara McGinnis, a well-known curriculum director with years of experience. She helps us plan where we’re headed, and she sits in during all our debriefing sessions. Also, the R11CC put together an information management system to house the research, articles, emails, and professional development and have taken the time to train the staff on how and where to access it and collect staff feedback.

What does success look like for your schools and students?

Ultimately, we hope that we’ll see improved language scores and improved reading. Last year, we saw really nice improvement in our equity and improvement scores in the state testing. The vocab project certainly played a role. But my thinking goes beyond state testing. If students are comfortable with reading and like to read, that means that they can access information. Hopefully down the road that’ll equip them to be successful adults.

Another piece of what success looks like is a change in how we’re approaching instruction. We’re seeing some dynamic changes in teachers’ classroom practices and their discussions around vocabulary. When teachers can talk with confidence about using research and best practices, not just following curriculum or a program, then you’ve really helped your teachers grow as professionals.

You can give professional development to teachers all the time, but if they don’t believe in it, it doesn’t really take hold. And I would say that our teachers have really taken hold of it. If teachers are invested in it, they’re going to do it because this is their school too.

This interview was featured in the R11CC Winter 2024 newsletter.