Alumni Story

Closing the literacy gap

Rialto USD's transformational journey

By Katrina Nash Published on

Cuauhtémoc Avila EdD ’11, the superintendent of the Rialto Unified School District, has made it his mission to address the declining reading scores within his district. Situated in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles, Rialto USD serves a diverse student population exceeding 24,000, with nearly 90% of students identifying as Latino, and only 25% considering English as their first language.

In partnership with the USC Rossier Office of Professional Development, Rialto USD initiated a transformative program in the 2021–2022 academic year. The program saw over 200 literacy experts successfully complete the Reading and Literacy Added Authorization (RLAA) program. These educators, spanning grades K–12, are now equipped with essential tools and strategies to assess students' reading difficulties and provide targeted remediation through guided practice. Each year since 2021, Rialto USD has committed to another cohort of learners and this year have expanded to offering the program to administrators and Teachers On Special Assignment.

Equity takes center stage in Rialto USD's mission. They define equity as ensuring that "all students, staff and families are acknowledged, accepted and valued—and have the needed support and encouragement – to take personal responsibility to realize their highest aspirations."

Addressing the literacy gap, Rialto USD has built its strategy on three educational pillars: teachers, students and families. The district meticulously devised a comprehensive plan around these roles. Dedicated teachers are expected to be knowledgeable and to believe in every student's potential to excel. Inspired students need to be motivated to embrace reading as a skill, and engaged families are encouraged to actively participate in their child's education. To further meet parents where they are, Rialto USD, in partnership with USC Rossier, has devised a Family Literacy Program to align itself with the RLAA program for parents. As a district, Rialto USD has committed itself to supporting each of these pillars.

When Rialto USD decided to develop a deep understanding of the science of reading, they turned to the Reading and Literacy Authorization program, concluding it was the most effective way to enhance their knowledge and practical experience in teaching reading within the classroom. Rialto USD partnered with USC Rossier to offer the year-long program extending the opportunity to all TK–12th grade teachers and administrators at no cost.

Upon completing the year-long program, teachers reported feeling significantly more prepared. Shelley Gastelo, a teacher at Dollahan Elementary School, described the program as rigorous, “I learned so many strategies to work with my students and help them succeed.” Michael Rawls, a teacher at Eisenhower High School, said “It’s been great to go through this program. I can’t wait to take my learnings back to my students to be able to serve them better.” Yessica Reyes-Stewart, a teacher at Curtis Elementary School, says “The program helped me as a teacher; I feel more equipped and I understand assessment much better, I can now identify exactly what each kid needs.”

In a matter of just a few months, spanning from fall to winter, and through the application of the acquired tools and strategies, 3rd grade students in Rialto made remarkable progress in their reading abilities. Mid-to-above grade level reader rates surged from 7% to 15%, early-grade-level readers increased from 19% to 28%, and the percentage of students reading below grade level decreased significantly from 74% to 58%.

If you would like to learn more about the Reading and Literacy Added Authorization Program, Delia Racines, PhD would be happy to hear from you. Delia can be reached directly at

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