On March 28, I had the privilege of attending an event to roll out the Reading Now Network. This is an initiative in which more than 90 school districts and Intermediate School Districts in Region 3 of Michigan, including all districts in our Montcalm Area Intermediate School District, have joined to address the concern that too many of our students do not learn how to read by third grade.
This effort is significant because it is in stark contrast to the message we hear too often that for our public education system to be successful, schools need to compete with one another. Since the work began on this project more than a year ago, House Bill 5111 has been proposed by state Rep. Amanda Price. This legislation would hold back any third grade student who did not pass the reading portion of the state exam. If this bill and others that have been introduced pass, state reports indicate that 33,000 students would be retained in third grade.
But educators in Region 3 have decided this is unacceptable. Some research indicates that there are negative social implications of holding a student back. But not learning to read has negative consequences as well. Research shows that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time. It also shows that 23 percent of low, below-basic readers drop out or fail to finish high school on time.
While statewide discussion continues, these educators have decided they cannot wait. They are going use this unique undertaking to work with one another and the business community to solve this problem. They are going to do whatever it takes to improve early literacy and ultimately eliminate illiteracy in a region with more than 257,000 students. They believe that students should not only be able to learn to read, but to read to learn.
How do they plan to do this? They are going to empower a team of instructional leaders who will:
• examine data from their schools, analyze their student population, their level of need and their performance;
• identify the best performing schools and classrooms in the region, especially the ones who are beating the odds with children of poverty and children for whom English is a second language;
• benchmark their performance against best early literacy practices in the region, state and the nation;
• compare their instructional practices and programming to those who get better results and make the changes necessary to increase achievement.
Their goal is to meet and hopefully exceed Michigan’s goal of 80 percent proficiency in third grade reading. But this is not their only goal. They are not going to blame others for their problems. They hope to work together and with their communities to assure kindergarten readiness, eighth grade math proficiency and graduates who are career and college ready.
The exciting part of all of this is the willingness to work together. As Peter Haines, Greenville superintendent, said in his remarks, “There is no virtue in keeping trade secrets.” They are putting the interests of the children and the region first. They are going to pool all their resources of information and practices so that in the end all schools and all children will reap the benefits. For too long they have been told to work alone and compete with one another. This collaborative effort could set the example for other regions and end an era of self serving isolation and competition and usher in a return to belief that the needs of children come first.
To learn more, go to www.gomasa.org/readingnow.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.