A group of leaders from public and private organizations launched the Get Georgia Reading campaign in 2013 in reaction to the realization that 68 percent of the state’s third-graders weren’t reading proficiently in 2012. The alarming figure has decreased to 64 percent in 2017, but the progress still is leaving too many children behind.
That was part of the urgent message Martha Ann Todd, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, delivered Friday to the 315 participants during the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce 2017 Partners in Education conference at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
“There’s a crack in everything,” said Todd, among the more than two dozen members of the campaign’s cabinet. “There’s something wrong with everything. … But that’s how the light gets in. So when looking at your data today, look for opportunities. You might not be able as a partner to do something that you see as huge, but every little bit makes a difference. And it’s not always about money or Gatorade or T-shirts; it’s about being there, doing what it takes, thinking outside the box, being willing to engage to help make a difference in the life of a child. That’s how the light gets in.”
The Get Georgia Reading campaign comprises four main goals, expressed as pillars:
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▪ Language nutrition: All children receive abundant, language-rich, adult-child interactions, which are as critical for brain development as healthy food is for physical growth.
▪ Access: All children and their families have year-round access to, and supportive services for, healthy physical and social-emotional development and success in high-quality early childhood and elementary education.
▪ Positive learning climate: All educators, families and policymakers understand and address the impact of learning climate on social-emotional development, attendance, engagement, academic achievement and ultimately student success.
▪ Teacher preparation and effectiveness: All teachers of children ages 0 to 8 are equipped with evidence-informed skills, knowledge and resources that effectively meet the literacy needs of each child in a developmentally appropriate manner.
And the campaign suggests five key roles Partners in Education can play to attain those goals:
▪ Identify and make sense of factors that affect children’s ability to read.
▪ Use data to change the conversation and align policies and investments to strengthen the four pillars.
▪ Connect, convene and support decision-makers in moving from a sector-focused approach to a population-focused approach.
▪ Inspire collective action and innovation to create the conditions essential for children to be on a path – starting from birth – to reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
▪ Celebrate partner successes and clearly communicate the possibilities to realize the common agenda across the state.
After third grade, the focus in school is reading to learn instead of learning to read, Todd said, so third-grade reading scores on standardized tests have become a key predictor in future academic success. In 2016, the Georgia high school graduation rate was 60.5 percent for students who had failed to meet the state’s reading standard in third grade, 78.4 percent for students who had met the standard then and 88.9 percent for students who had exceeded the standard then.
Although school climate hasn’t been proven to be causative in academic achievement, Todd said, studies do show they are strongly related. “So as your school climate rating goes up, your student reading proficiency goes up,” she said.
Something as simple as ensuring students receive more than the one required vision screening while in kindergarten through 12th grade can make a significant difference in helping them overcome a reading deficiency, Todd said.
“Health statistics tell us that as many as 1 in 4 children in Georgia may be visually impaired,” she said. “Now, I can tell you, if you look around your schools, you probably don’t see 25 percent of the children wearing glasses. … So for those of you trying to think of effective ways to partner, there’s one to consider.”
But even before children start school, their home environment determines whether they begin their climb up the educational ladder with a boost or a hindrance. By the age of 3, children in high-income families have double the vocabulary of children in low-income families, according to the data Todd presented.
She also cited a 1995 study by the late University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, famous for asserting that children of professionals hear 30 million more words than children of welfare recipients by age 4. They also found that the kinds of words matter: Children in the more affluent families heard 32 affirmations and five prohibitions per hour, children in working-class families heard 12 affirmations and seven prohibitions per hour, and children in welfare families heard five affirmations and 11 prohibitions per hour.
Todd quoted Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker as she said, “When children don’t have effective language, their behavior becomes their language.” So she suggested Partners in Education should help schools find “effective strategies to develop those social and emotional, what we call executive, skills in children at a very early age.”
GOSA developed a tool to address this issue, Words2Reading.com, which has curated resources for families, caregivers and teachers to help children’s language and literacy skills. Another tool, developed by educational researchers, is Ready4KGA, a text-messaging service that delivers three times per week “a quick easy tip to help them understand simple things that can be done in their daily routines to engage their children in language development,” Todd said.
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Since 1987, the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce has been fostering “meaningful business and community involvement” in area schools, according to its website. The program now comprises 230 organizations with partnerships in approximately 80 schools. In addition to funding needs, these partners provide “human capital” by developing and staffing activities such as mentoring programs, awards ceremonies, tutoring sessions, field trips, career days, parenting workshops and life skills classes.