Literacy Advocates Pack Read On Symposium

January 27, 2014

Read On Communities

Sierra Vista Herald | Adam Curtis

SIERRA VISTA — Educators, parents, elected officials and community members filled the Sierra Vista Public Library’s Mona Bishop Room to learn about the importance of early literacy and share opportunities to promote it on Thursday.

Hosted by First Things First and the Cochise County Schools Superintendent’s Office, the Read On Cochise County Symposium served as an opportunity to spread awareness and share resources regarding early childhood education, with an emphasis on meeting a new state reading requirement for third-graders to read at grade level or be held back from fourth grade. Presenters at the event came from all corners of Cochise County and attendees participated in an open forum, highlighting the challenges and opportunities tied to meeting the state’s increasingly rigorous standards.

“We’re all here to learn from each other, to create linkages and leverages to how our kids can get access to books, programs and services for early literacy,” said Melissa Avant, the Cochise Regional Director of First Things First.

Melanie Rottweiler, chair of the local First Things First regional council, said the job for getting kids ready for school starts the day they are born, if not earlier.

Research has shown that 90 percent of critical brain development occurs by the age of 5, Rottweiler said. A national survey of kindergarten teachers found that about two-thirds of students enter kindergarten unprepared.

“The kids who start behind, usually stay behind in school,” Rottweiler said. Currently, more than 40 percent of Arizona’s fourth-graders are not reading at grade level, meaning under the standard coming into effect this spring, they would’ve been held back from entering fourth grade.

The key to reverse this trend lies in the early years. “We all need to invest in all kids in the early years,” Rottweiler said. Until the third grade, children learn to read but after that they read to learn, meaning being up to speed at that point is vital for their overall success in school.

Despite extreme challenges in operating and funding a K-12 school in a community of about 650 people, Nancy-Jean Welker said Bowie has a tuition-free preschool.

The president of the Bowie Unified School District Governing Board, Welker said the preschool has strained their budget but they feel it’s very important. The community has one of the highest tax rates for its school in the state, due to a lack of local businesses, while also facing some of the worst poverty levels.

“The school is literally and figuratively the center of our town. I like to call it the heart of our town,” she said.

Welker also heads up economic development efforts in Bowie and said early childhood education is being increasingly recognized as an investment that offers more bang for your buck than educational programs at a later age.

Steve Poling, superintendent of the Palominas Elementary School District, said sharing resources will be vital in meeting the state’s new move on when reading law.

While the new law also provides some funding, for Poling’s district it was only $55,000, which would only hire one teacher for the three school district, making it difficult to make a meaningful district-wide impact, he said.

With a community-wide approach, it won’t just be up to the third-grade teacher or the parents, Poling said. Sharing that responsibility and building partnerships is key.

“Together we can really make a big difference and help students be successful,” Poling said.

Presenters shared resources available through the Cochise County libraries and United Way, while the open forum provided a variety of attendees a chance to share their own expertise.

Once the discussion was opened up to attendees Megan Sneary, the youth librarian in Sierra Vista, shared how her children’s doctor has started to ask what they’re reading at each of their routine physicals.

In casual interactions, instead of asking children how they are doing, Sneary suggests asking them what they are reading today.

“It’s amazing how much it’s starting to get in the vocabulary now,” she said. It spreads via word of mouth as more people show interest and talk about it.

“It’s little things like that that make a huge difference in those 0 to 5 years,” Sneary said.

Near the end of the two-hour event, following many comments from attendees with early literacy experience, Sierra Vista Unified School District kindergarten teacher Sue Armstrong said she has steadily seen an increase in the readiness of her students over the last few years.

“Somebody’s doing some good stuff out there,” Armstrong said. “I’m really buzzed that we’re all here.”

About Read On Arizona
Read On Cochise County is part of a statewide public and private partnership of agencies, philanthropic organizations and community stakeholders that are committed to creating a continuum of support to improve language and literacy outcomes for Arizona’s children from birth to age 8.

Read On Arizona’s founding partners are: the Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Department of Education, First Things First, head Start State Collaboration Office, helios Education Foundation, and Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.