Governor has broad support for literacy goals

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State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who taught third grade for 11 years at Mountain Home before being elected as the lead advocate for public schools, knows all about the importance of children in the early grades reading proficiently. She has first-hand knowledge about the consequences for those who fall behind.

So, Ybarra backs Gov. Brad Little in his call to make literacy one of his top priorities. He said in his State of the State address, and other venues, that he wants every child to be reading at least to grade level by the end of the third grade.

During Ybarra’s teaching days, she said, “My colleagues and I would get very nervous at the end of the year if we had even that one student that was not up to grade level by the end of the third grade. We would be having conversations for teachers in the following year to keep an eye on them, because we understood the impact it would have.”

The urgency of the governor’s initiative is glaring. While reading scores in the first three grades have shown modest improvement in the past year, Idaho kids are a long way from where they should be. According to the Idaho Reading Initiative scores, 64 percent of third graders perform at least to grade level. That’s 36 percent who do not. In lower grades, less than half of first graders and only 42 percent of kindergartners are reading at grade level. Apparently, not enough pre-school kids are learning early reading at home.

The research on childhood literacy is clear. Academics are a nightmare for third-grade students who don’t read at grade level. Drop-out rates are high, and some end up in prison.

None of this is new, of course. Little is merely putting a sharper focus on the issue, backed with financial muscle for school districts. The Legislature appropriated $26 million last year to work on improving literacy, and it is part of the education budget this year.

Little also has a strong coalition on his side. He addressed the Idaho State Superintendents Association in August, encouraging educators to be part of his team.

“That spoke to the hearts of every superintendent in the room,” said Dr. Mary Ann Ranells, superintendent of West Ada schools and president of the association. During a breakout session, one superintendent said, ‘the governor has invited us to be on his team, and I think we should.’ Other superintendents offered their enthusiastic support – including Mary Ann’s husband, Bob (the school superintendent at Wallace).

“I’m very much excited,” he said. “All the superintendents in my area are talking about literacy and what they are doing to improve. Most of the districts have hired reading specialists and are making substantial gains. We’re seeing positive growth here.”

Mary Ann Ranells, who leads the largest district in the state, knows it will take more than wishful thinking to meet the ultimate goal – starting with specific learning targets and credible measures for fluency and comprehension. She describes the $26 million from the state as a “gift” that will help students receive the individual attention they need.

“We need to go back to those learning targets,” she said. “So, you know your letters? Show me. So, you know the sounds those letters make? Show me. We need to be that specific with every kid, regardless of personal circumstances. Kids are going to have to hit this out of the park. This is not something you can get a ‘C’ on, or a ‘D.’”

Ranells says she’s seeing progress at West Ada, where a record 80 percent of third graders are reading at grade level, but she’s hardly celebrating. “That means 20 percent are not. I’m not interested in talking about excuses.”

Educators – from Ybarra, to Ranells and down the line – have a long list of things they want to accomplish in their line of work. But all is for naught if kids are not reading proficiently by the third grade.

Little is on the right track by making literacy a centerpiece of his agenda, and kudos to the superintendents for backing him. The effort is long overdue.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

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