This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For a school system struggling through a turbulent and financially difficult time, one bright spot has been the emerging effort to improve reading instruction in the early grades. Through a well-conceived, grant-funded program, about 700 teachers from 40 schools spent a week in July learning evidence-based literacy instructional strategies. Teams of teachers from many of the neediest schools came out. The sessions got enthusiastic reviews. The effort didn’t stop there; these schools were rewarded with a literacy support teacher and classroom libraries.
But Philadelphia schools can’t do it alone – they need support on several fronts for their early literacy efforts to flourish.
The most urgent need for our inadequately staffed schools is a resolution to the state’s budget stalemate – one that delivers substantially more recurring revenue to Philadelphia and other school districts now operating with bare-bones budgets. We all can help make that happen by urging state legislators to deliver the necessary funds.
We have been inundated with news about the shortages of counselors and nurses, materials and supplies, libraries and technology that a funding boost would help alleviate. But there is less mention of another casualty of the impasse: Gov. Wolf’s proposal to double the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in publicly funded pre-K. High-quality pre-K is especially important to help children raised in poverty be ready for school, but only one in five of the city’s existing slots is considered high-quality by the state’s child care rating system.
Also in need of improvement is the city’s Early Intervention program. Philadelphia trails other Pennsylvania cities in getting these services to young children with developmental delays and disabilities, even though funding is available. Therapeutic and educational interventions for children 0-5, when brain development is most intense, reduce the need for special education later and boost school success. More aggressive outreach can make a difference: Parents, caregivers, and child-serving professionals need education about the importance of screening and the available resources. This could make a real dent in the number of children who are already far behind before they start school.
Once children arrive in kindergarten, the key to literacy success is a well-trained teacher. Teacher education programs in area universities need to do better here – providing a stronger core of structured literacy training. Teachers in grades K-3 must be expert in diagnosing and responding to a wide array of literacy challenges. All teachers need to be prepared, as special education teachers are, to spot the red flags and address the obstacles to reading. Clinical practice in the teaching of reading is vital. The core faculty who prepare our future teachers of reading must themselves have current public school teaching experience. The School District has leverage here; it can give hiring preference to graduates of programs that provide rich literacy training.
We all have some leverage – to challenge city and state institutions and leaders. The status quo that perpetuates low literacy levels in Philadelphia cannot continue.