Manassas City, VA

Manassas City Students Improve PALS Performance and Exit ESOL Program After Using Fast ForWord

We chose Fast ForWord because of the extensive research behind the program,” said Meyer. “It’s a brain-based model that helps learners develop their brains to be more receptive to reading and language instruction. In addition, having a computer-based program for intervention purposes helps us address issues that are sometimes difficult to address in the classroom.”

Dr. Michaelene Meyer
Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction

Manassas City Public Schools launched the Fast ForWord® program in 2009 to improve instruction for English language learners (ELLs), accelerate learning for all K-2 students, and address the needs of struggling readers in grades 3-4. Since then, students have achieved significant gains on the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS). In addition, in the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, the number of students making significant progress and proficiency gains after one full year of implementation is moving upward in a positive trend.

District Statistics

  • School District: Manassas City Public Schools
  • Number of Schools: 9
  • Number of Students: 6,983
  • Grades: K-12
  • Population: 14% African-American, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, 28% Caucasian, 48% Hispanic, 6% Other; 51% free/reduced lunch, 14% special education, 33% limited English proficient
  • Assessment tool: Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS)
  • School Structure: Suburban/urban


  • Large ELL population
  • More than 27 different language groups
  • Lack of instructional consistency in elementary schools
  • Mobile student population

In Manassas City Public Schools, the number of ELLs has steadily increased over the last decade. Currently, 33 percent of students participate in the school division’s ESOL program and more than 27 different languages are spoken.

In 2008, while reviewing student data from the PALS, the state-provided K-3 screening tool for Virginia’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative, Manassas City saw improvements were needed.

“When we looked at the PALS data, we saw that ELL students were not making the progress we felt they should be making,” said Dr. Michaelene Meyer, deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Manassas City. “At the time, consistency was an issue. Each elementary school was doing something different and many students bounce from school to school. We needed to bring everyone together with an instructional model and intervention support that would ensure higher achievement gains for students across the division.”

During the 2008-09 school year, Manassas City decided to implement a new literacy framework focused on best practices and the National Reading Panel’s five components of reading instruction. At the same time, Meyer suggested adding the Fast ForWord program to the school division’s five elementary schools, which are all Title I schools.

“Virginia provides funding to school divisions that participate in the PALS initiative. If a division accepts this funding, it must provide struggling readers with 30 minutes of intervention in addition to regular classroom instruction,” said Meyer. “We used to hire and train PALS tutors to work with small groups of students for this 30-minute period. But, since the state also allows school divisions to use software, we thought the Fast ForWord program would be a good way for students to spend the extra 30 minutes. It would also help us create more consistency in the intervention model we were using. And since students move from school to school, their intervention plan would be set and ready to go, regardless of which elementary they attend.”


Manassas City Public Schools purchased the Fast ForWord software for its elementary schools using PALS funding and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. Fast ForWord is a family of educational software products that accelerate learning by applying proven research on how the brain learns. The products can improve student achievement by one to two years in as little as eight to 12 weeks.

“We chose Fast ForWord because of the extensive research behind the program,” said Meyer. “It’s a brain-based model that helps learners develop their brains to be more receptive to reading and language instruction. In addition, having a computer-based program for intervention purposes helps us address issues that are sometimes difficult to address in the classroom.”

After piloting the program in spring 2009, the five elementary schools fully launched the Fast ForWord software in fall 2009. “Our primary goal is to have all students reading on grade level by the time they leave third grade,” said Meyer.

All K-2 students, including ELL students, work on the Fast ForWord software 30 minutes a day in computer labs, which some schools call “Brain Labs.” In addition, in grades 3-4, the software is used by students who have not met grade-level benchmarks.

“With the aid of our designated Fast ForWord coaches who have been trained by Scientific Learning staff, a common literacy language that incorporates progress monitoring and ongoing data analysis has emerged among all participating elementary schools. Our Fast ForWord coaches have also become models for surrounding jurisdictions to build their own Fast ForWord programs,” said Meyer.

In the school division’s ESOL program, the Fast ForWord software provides a way to accelerate the learning process and help ELL students build the foundational skills they need to be successful in the classroom.

“Virginia uses the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) framework to assess ELL students. The majority of our kindergarten and first grade ESOL students are ‘leveled’ either a 1 or 2. The kindergarten assessment is rigorous and it is unusual to have very many students ‘exit’ the program after only one year. Keeping in mind that English language learners need five to seven years to master a new language at the level required for academic work, we knew we needed to tighten up our intervention/support model for our young students. Fast ForWord provided a way to give these students an extra 30 minutes daily to help build the foundational reading language skills they need to be successful by the time they reach third grade. Our focus at grades K-2 is to strengthen those foundational skills, and at third and fourth grade to boost reading comprehension skills. This program has solid research in doing this for ESOL students.”

Outside the regular school day, selected elementary schools also use the Fast ForWord software in an after-school acceleration program. The program, which runs February to mid-May, provides additional support to help students prepare for state assessments. In addition, the division utilizes the software for students identified for targeted instructional intervention during summer school.


  • Improved PALS performance
  • Improved progress and proficiency rates for ESOL students on the WIDA
  • Increased number of students exiting the ESOL program

Since 2009, elementary students who have used the Fast ForWord program have experienced measurable gains.

“In spring 2008, 85 percent of kindergarten students across the division met the kindergarten benchmark on the PALS end-of-year assessment. In 2009, the year we started Fast ForWord, that number climbed to 87 percent. In 2010, after a full year of using Fast ForWord, 91 percent of kindergartners passed the assessment. At the first grade level, division-wide, we went from a passage rate of 80 percent in spring 2008 to 86 percent in spring 2010.”

Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS)
Percentage of students achieving proficiency
Grade2008 (Before Fast ForWord use)2010

According to Meyer, Virginia initiated WIDA assessments during the 2008-09 school year, and the initial “progress” (students making targeted language progress) and “proficiency” (students exiting the ESOL program) comparison data for the two years is very promising. “Our ELL student population was at a high of 38 percent a few years ago; we are now at the lowest rate in five years at 33 percent. We feel this is a sign of our programs starting to have a positive impact on the acquisition of English for our students. Our division results are strong for our K-4 students, especially considering that they are still within that five to seven year span of acquiring a new language. If they enter school as kindergarteners, we expect them to exit or be close to exiting the ESOL program by the end of fourth grade,” she said.

“In terms of the kindergarten assessment, Baldwin Elementary had 17 percent of their kindergarten ESOL students exit the program. This is highly unusual. We strongly believe that the strength of our implemented reading model, our focused increase in instructional time for reading/math, and the added consistency of a strong intervention model for PALS — the Fast ForWord program — is what made a difference in the results of this school. We are looking at what is happening at this building in order to replicate the model more fully in the other four elementary schools,” said Meyer.

World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA)
Percentage of students demonstrating progress or proficiency
2009-10 school year
School/Grade LevelTitle III Accountability
Progress (state target is 64%)
Proficiency (exiting ESOL program)
Division KNA4%
Baldwin KNA17%
Division 186%3%
Weems 194%4%
Division 278%13%
Weems 283%13%
Division 385%19%
Haydon 395%22%
Division 477%13%
Weems 494%14%

Meyer also indicated that students’ writing subscores on the WIDA are improving. “We’ve consistently seen students’ writing subscores increase — and writing is the last language domain that starts emerging. We’re seeing with K-3 students in the Fast ForWord program that their reading and writing scores are close together. This means the program we now have in place is addressing reading and writing simultaneously in a meaningful way,” she said.

Meyer hears Fast ForWord success stories from the school principals as well. “Last spring, the principal with the highest percentage of ESOL students called me after conducting practice Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments. She said, ‘I just looked at my simulation results from this group of third graders and Fast ForWord is what’s making the difference. That’s the only thing we’ve done differently. I’m seeing it making an incredible difference with the kids.' I hear that from all the principals. They all say Fast ForWord is making a difference with their students.”

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