Literacy Focus

Shelby County Schools system aims to boost third-grade reading proficiency

By Bill Dries

For Shelby County Schools officials, there hasn’t been much time to wonder about the second part of the historic reformation of public education in Shelby County.

The Shelby County Schools board has a goal that was set earlier this year of every third-grader in the system reading at grade level by the end of the school year.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

As members of the six suburban school boards were sworn in this month and agreements for school buildings and funding and settling the federal lawsuit were approved, Shelby County Schools board members were hearing the first details of what a new emphasis on literacy could look like in the 2014-2015 school year for the post-merger school system.

The school board set the goal earlier this year of every third-grader in the system reading at grade level. It was among the first actions of the school board after it made the transition in September from a 23-member board to seven members.

“We have a problem,” Deputy Superintendent David Stephens, who is leading the literacy effort, told school board members last month at their first briefing on the plan that is still taking shape. “To me it’s a moral imperative for every one of us to say that every one of our third-graders, by the time they leave third grade, they are going to be proficient or advanced.”

The first look was also Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s first indication that the pursuit of that goal will mean changes in the school system’s budget that starts to take shape in the spring.

Hopson has repeatedly made a simple statement of a basic problem even more basic.

“Our kids can’t read,” he has said numerous times since this year’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test scores showed that on average only 36 percent of students in the district are proficient in reading and language arts.

“When you dive deeper in the numbers and look at the areas with a higher poverty rate … the numbers are more like 28 percent proficient,” Hopson told the school board last month. “There’s a parade of horribles that goes along with kids who can’t read by the time they leave third grade.”

And Hopson has been equally blunt about the price tag for a comprehensive intervention in classrooms to raise the percentage as well as efforts outside classrooms and that bring volunteers into classrooms.

“At the end of the day, the school district has resources to do some of this, but it’s going to take much more,” he said. “We need everybody to roll up their sleeves.”

School board member David Pickler urged the board in its upcoming budget season to use “a different lens and decide what business we are in.”

“Clear the landscape and put sufficient resources into making this a reality,” he added. “This has got to be a focus that brings everyone together. It’s got to transcend urban and suburban.”

School board member Billy Orgel said there should at least be an assistant for teachers in every school. But he also said budgets to carry out the goal of third-grade proficiency shouldn’t be the same from school to school.

“The pushback that we’re going to get is we can’t fund that,” he said. “Why do we have the same treatment at a 2 percent proficient school that we do at an 80 percent proficient school? All budgets for these schools should not be equal.”

Hopson agreed, citing the need for more autonomy at schools.

“Teaching reading is rocket science,” said Dr. Linda Kennard, Shelby County Schools director of curriculum and instruction. “This is tough work.”

The move toward more specific instruction for teachers on how to teach a classroom of students with varying levels of reading proficiency began this past summer. From the teachers who took part in that summer training, the school system is now offering the same training at all of its Innovation Zone Schools and 23 high priority schools where student achievement levels remain low. When the current school year ends, the same training will be offered to all Shelby County Schools teachers.

The other measures being considered include adding a literacy coach to the school system’s coaching model and coming up with a common assessment every three weeks or so focused on the literacy skills of students in kindergarten through third grade.

Classroom observations of teachers that are part of teacher evaluations could shift to make half of the observations in reading for teachers who teach all subjects and the observation standards would include specific “look fors” in the way the teachers tackle reading.

A small-scale “team read” program at Treadwell Elementary School in which volunteers help with vocabulary could expand.

Outside the teacher-student relationship, Kennard said the school system is considering items like sponsors to provide incentives to students for meeting reading goals, a literacy calendar for parents and nonprofit literacy organizations to show activities for each week of the year and parental training on literacy outside the school day.

Kennard said the University of Memphis education college is proposing a partnership on literacy efforts that could begin as a pilot program.