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Education Community Conversation

United Way, Tarrant County College, Tarleton State University and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History hosted a public “community conversation” on the importance of early grade reading April 13 at the Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus in Fort Worth. A panel of local literacy leaders led the thoughtful discussion of the issues and opportunities related to early grade reading and its implications for college and career readiness.

The moderator, Dr. Anthony Edwards, Director of Global Campus Outreach at Tarleton State University, noted that many players are involved in the process of education. Parents are their children’s first teachers. The teachers who take it from there must themselves be trained first by colleges, which also provide remediation to high school graduates not quite ready for college level work.

“Our job is to prepare teachers to be literacy teachers,” said Dr. Rebecca Putman, Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Tarleton State University. “They have to be able to go into any classroom and meet the diverse needs of the students. If you are a teacher, you know how complex that is.”

Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD Supt. Steve Chapman said, “We need to have our very best teachers in the early grades. We have to build a strong early literacy foundation.” His district is one of eight Tarrant County districts participating in a Regional Superintendents Collaborative organized by United Way. The districts have worked with United Way and Education Service Center Region 11 to create the Lone Star Literacy Institute. This summer the Institute will start developing and supporting teachers’ growth in teaching reading and writing to increase the number of students reading on grade level. It will benefit almost 2,000 teachers and 40,000 students. “United Way connected the dots to enable us to be able to provide high quality training to our teachers,” Supt. Chapman said.

United Way Community Development Division Vice President LaToya Stewart pointed out the important role that summer literacy programming plays in helping elementary students maintain their literacy skills from one school year to the next. She said funding from United Way and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation will provide more than 350 students and parents with over 12,000 hours of literacy support across the Arlington, Fort Worth, HEB and White Settlement school districts. The literacy support will be provided by BridgesWork, Inc.; Girls, Inc.; Reading Partners; Tarrant Churches Together and the YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth.

Dr. Gleniece Robinson, Library Director for the City of Fort Worth, emphasized the role played by public libraries. She said the Fort Worth Public Library provides 4,000 programs a year, and library programs have a literacy component aligned with the school district. She noted that the Fort Worth Public Library is involved in the Fort Worth Literacy Partnership’s Summer Literacy Collaborative Action Network, which is being co-chaired by Dr. Robinson and LaToya Stewart. The Literacy Partnership is a coalition of business, civic, education, philanthropic, nonprofit and volunteer leaders working to ensure that all Fort Worth third-graders are reading on grade level by 2025.

“Students who read 20 minutes a day tend to score in the 90th percentile of standardized tests by third grade, so imagine the impact we can make if we continue that momentum throughout those two critical summer months where kids aren’t going to school every day,” said Arcelia León, Executive Director of Literacy and Content Area Literacy for the Fort Worth ISD. She said the Fort Worth ISD’s free “ReadyRosie” program, which United Way helped the district launch in 2014, also equips parents with learning activities they can enjoy with children from infancy to age 6 in the car, grocery store and other places using mobile technology and “hands on, real world experiences.”

In the classroom, high quality technology is good when it is combined with teachers using best practices, according to Dr. Putman. Cathy Barthelemy, Executive Director of Education at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said the museum uses technology “as a tool and as a support. The museum’s mission, she said, is to “provide extraordinary learning environments” by employing “rich visuals” combined with text to communicate with children. She said the Wild about Reading event that the museum sponsors with United Way emphasizes to children and parents that “literacy is important.”

What is the job of literacy leaders? “Our job as literacy leaders is to be champions for literacy,” said Supt. Chapman. “We have to look for ways to fill the gaps and make sure literacy doesn’t get overshadowed by other issues and challenges.” Arcelia León said the alignment of programs and efforts (“all our arrows pointing in the same direction”) is important for literacy leaders to remember. “Working together is going to get us there,” agreed Dr. Robert Muñoz, Tarrant County College Vice President for Continuing Education, as he closed out the event.