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Let’s stop distancing ourselves from root causes of systemic failure

Cute Brothers and Sister Wearing Backpacks Ready for School.

During the past five years, Read Better Be Better has provided after-school instruction in foundational literacy skills to thousands of struggling Title 1 third graders and leadership training to at-risk 6th-8th graders who serve as the 3rd graders’ reading mentors. The need for 3rd graders to read at grade level by the end of the school year is critical; students who don’t are four times less likely to graduate from high school. However, with proper reading intervention there is an 89% chance that third graders who read at grade level will graduate from high school, irrespective of socio-economic status.

In March, with schools closed statewide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, RBBB’s after-school program was suspended and we have been dealing with unforeseen changes and new demands. We have been working intently with our school district partners to transition our program into two different formats that meld with the new at-home context of our schools so that our students can continue learning and avoid regression in their reading progress.

Wendy White

Wendy White

First, our staff developed a Family Literacy Kit that translates our school program to home use with caregivers assuming the role of reading mentors for their children. We are distributing these kits at the local schools as students pick up their daily meals. Second, we launched RBBB Home Connect in the Avondale Elementary School District using Zoom to safely link our Readers and Leaders remotely, not only to boost literacy skills but to re-establish community and connectedness while our students are secluded.

However, we are clearly aware that for the communities we serve, digital access is an unaffordable luxury in the best of times not to mention now, in the face of even greater economic uncertainty and disparity. As Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman tweeted on March 30, “This crisis will worsen many inequities that have long-existed across our system & widen the achievement gap between under-resourced communities and their more advantaged counterparts.”

The superintendent’s tweet highlights a point that needs to be stressed: the students in our program struggle with reading not because they’re not smart enough or are not working hard enough or don’t receive proper classroom instruction. They struggle for many reasons that are simply outside of their control and center on inequities in systems that affect them and, for many, have affected their families for multiple generations: poverty, housing and homelessness, employment, crime rates and incarceration, healthcare, and education. Arizona has a dismal record in all these categories for vulnerable populations.

Our state consistently hovers near the bottom of the national rankings for public schools. We’re 47th in the nation for per student funding. We’re 49th for teacher pay. For decades the State of Arizona has been involved in lawsuits for violating the federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act, the methods for funding school facilities and programs for at-risk students, and for being out-of-compliance with remedies from previous rulings. So is it any wonder that Arizona is 44th for pre-K-12 education? That more than half our students failed the 2019 AzMERIT state standardized test? That we have the second highest dropout rate in the country? No, especially when you consider the other disparities that are stacked against too many students in this state.

Public schools are now charged with providing an array of social services outside of education, from addressing nutrition to healthcare to social-emotional needs. Now, during this pandemic, they’re figuring out how to do so in new ways with school buses distributing meals, school social workers offering YouTube videos on relaxation techniques for families during this stressful time, as well as providing educational instruction online or through paper learning packets. Our public schools are not, by and large, failing our students. But we are. Because year after year, opportunity and achievement gaps are allowed to persist by elected officials at all levels and, ultimately, by us.

This pandemic has the potential to further scar our most vulnerable and limit our students to even more narrow life paths. But the disparities the virus has more clearly revealed also create the opportunity for change. As an organization, RBBB was founded to respond to the need in our community for a third grade reading intervention program. But we cannot change Arizona’s childhood literacy crisis in a vacuum. The many chasms that exist in our society have to be bridged in order that all children receive equal footing for their futures. While the COVID-19 virus has distanced us socially for months, in our post-pandemic world we must stop distancing ourselves from the root causes that drive our systemic failures and finally address, head on and as a community, the outdated beliefs, biases, and political obstructionism that sustain them.

Wendy White is a grant writer with Read Better Be Better.

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