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Raising the bar on K-3 reading takes money and explicit focus, specialists tell lawmakers

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SALT LAKE CITY — After Utah lawmakers raised expectations for K-3 literacy in legislation passed earlier this year, district-level educators told the Education Interim Committee Wednesday that meeting those goals takes money and explicit focus from school administrators on improving reading and writing.

Ogden School District, for one, has established literacy as one of two overarching goals for the school district. The other is improving the urban school district’s high school graduation rate.

Education research shows the two are inextricably linked. An Education Commission of the States report says children who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school.

“If we lose sight of where we’re headed and we’re trying to do too many things at once, we can’t accomplish it at all. We need to keep our focus, and in Ogden, that is literacy and graduation and every school in Ogden is committed to that focus,” said Maridee Harrison, principal of Polk Elementary School.

SB194, passed by the Utah Legislature during its general session earlier this year, requires elementary schools to reach a higher bar in reading.

It requires that at least 60 percent — up from 47 percent — of students in grades one through three make “typical or better progress” in reading development from the start to the end of each academic year.

The 60 percent benchmark is expected to increase as more schools reach the target.

Debbie Smith, literacy specialist at Vista Elementary School in the Granite School District, said continual improvement in reading will also require a greater investment in teacher recruitment and retention.

“It’s a matter of trying to build that teacher capacity and making sure these teachers don’t burn out, that they don’t want to go to another profession,” said Smith.

More professionals — such as instructional aides and certified teachers — are also needed to work with students in small groups to help them improve their reading.

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, said educators’ efforts to improve early literacy will change lives for generations.

“These students who are in third grade and not on reading level become so much more likely to end up in penitentiaries and other places which are very expensive to our society financially and socially. So I just want to thank you and applaud you for being in the trenches. I think it’s more of a calling than a career,” said Owens.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, and the sponsor of SB194, also applauded the work of educators but asked them what can be done to replicate best practices.

“How do we spread your good work across schools all over the state?” Millner asked.

She continued, “How do we do that and how do we do that faster? I look at that 47 percent number and I want to move it up because those are individual student lives and it’s going to impact them for the rest of their lives. So how do we share this and how do we move it faster?”

It takes buy-in from administrators, panelists said.

Toward that end, state education officials have required reading specialists to bring their administrators to state-offered trainings, said Jennifer Throndsen, Utah State Board of Education literacy coordinator for grades pre-K through 12.

“The feedback I’ve received from the field is it created the conditions to really start that conversation to get the support they need to do the work they know needs to be accomplished,” Throndsen said.

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