It takes a village

Nashville’s third-graders trail the state in reading proficiency. Here’s the city’s plan to change that.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Nashville's J.E. Moss Elementary School check out reading options on a bookmobile sponsored by Parnassus Books, a local bookstore. A new citywide initiative aims to bring in more community partners to support the district's literacy efforts.

As Tennessee grapples with its reading problem, Nashville has kicked off its own literacy effort aimed at accelerating the reading skills of the city’s youngest students.

The Nashville Literacy Collaborative recently launched as a six-month initiative organized by the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the Nashville Public Library in coordination with Mayor Megan Barry’s office and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Only 34 percent of the Nashville district’s third-graders read at grade level, compared to 43 percent statewide. Third grade is viewed as a critical reading milestone from which children can read to learn in later years.

“Reading at grade level is a major indicator for a child’s academic success, and a child’s academic success is a strong indicator for the future of Nashville,” Barry said in a statement. “The Nashville Literacy Collaborative will provide critical insights that will help us better understand and support the city’s early literacy needs.”

While Tennessee’s year-old Read to be Ready initiative focuses primarily on supporting teachers and changing the way reading is taught, Nashville is seeking to involve community members to reinforce the work of its school system.

“As a school district, we have to focus on improving first-time instruction as well as interventions when students fall behind,” Superintendent Shawn Joseph said. “But our efforts will be far more effective with a community-wide strategy to support our work.”

Lipscomb University will lead research for the campaign, mapping existing community efforts and identifying gaps in services. Organizers hope to have a clear plan for how the city can support students’ reading by this summer.

A 20-person community group began meeting in February. The collaborative will also seek input from literacy groups, faith and volunteer partners, parents, students and educators.

Members of the working group are:

  •         Angie Adams, PENCIL
  •         Elyse Adler, Nashville Public Library
  •         Harry Allen, Pinnacle Financial Partners and Chamber Education Report Card
  •         Paige Atchley, Tennessee Department of Education and Read to be Ready
  •         Dr. Adriana Bialostozky, Vanderbilt Hospital
  •         Carolyn Cobbs, Cumberland Elementary School
  •         Monique Felder, MNPS
  •         Rae Finnie, Glengarry Elementary School
  •         Tari Hughes, Center for Nonprofit Management
  •         Shannon Hunt, Nashville Public Education Foundation
  •         Melissa Jaggers, Alignment Nashville
  •         Erica Mitchell, United Way of Metropolitan Nashville
  •         Laura Moore, Mayor’s Office
  •         Kent Oliver, Nashville Public Library
  •         Tara Scarlett, Scarlett Foundation
  •          Renata Soto, Conexión Américas
  •         Melissa Spradlin, Book’em
  •         Amanda Tate, Nashville Public Library Foundation
  •         Denine Torr, Dollar General Literacy Foundation
  •         Whitney Weeks, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce

Read to be Ready

$30 million grant will grow Tennessee’s summer reading program tenfold

Children participate in a 2016 summer reading program in Lauderdale County in West Tennessee as part of a new grant-based literacy program overseen by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Last year, some 600 children statewide got to take advantage of summer reading programs under a new Tennessee literacy initiative. This summer, that number will soar to 10,000 children, thanks to a major state investment in the program.

The State Department of Human Services announced Tuesday its $30 million investment in Tennessee’s Read to Be Ready Summer Grant program.

The State Department of Education launched Read to be Ready a year ago to give its youngest students a foundation in reading — and boost the state’s lagging literacy rates. Only a third of its fourth-graders earned a proficient score on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card.

As part of Read to be Ready, the state awarded grants to local school districts and universities to operate summer literacy programs in their communities. Bolstered by a $1 million, three-year grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, it provided up to 20 grants to applicants across the state. The DHS investment should increase the number of programs to as many as 350 this year, officials say.

“We know the ability to read translates to academic success while equalizing opportunities for all students,” McQueen said. “The investment from DHS to the Read to be Ready work is a stellar example of state agencies working collectively to support a strong vision.”

Outgoing DHS Commissioner Raquel Hatter said the reading investment aligns with her department’s efforts to improve the wellbeing of Tennessee families. “Read to be Ready is an absolute game changer,” she said.

First lady Crissy Haslam, who has made early literacy her primary cause, praised the DHS for investing in summer reading, which aims to counter the summer slide that occurs when students fall behind during the school break.

“Literacy is essential to success in life, and it is not acceptable to have less than half of Tennessee students reading proficiently,” Haslam said. “Bill and I are thrilled for TDHS’s tremendous investment in the Read to be Ready summer program and the potential it has to impact thousands of students and move Tennessee closer towards the statewide reading goal.”

Summer camp

Can raising reading levels be fun? It was for these kids in Nashville

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Author and illustrator Susan Eaddy leads students in a hands-on activity at Camp Explore, a literacy-based summer learning experience at J.E. Moss Elementary School in Nashville.

Nashville youngsters spent part of their final day of summer camp last week rolling Play-Doh in snakes and coils under the guidance of children’s book author and illustrator Susan Eaddy — all for the cause of literacy.

The children were among nearly 40 students in kindergarten through third grade who spent four weeks of summer break at Camp Explore at J.E. Moss Elementary School.

The camp was funded with a $30,000 philanthropic grant through the Tennessee Department of Education’s Read to be Ready campaign, which aims to get 75 percent of the state’s third-graders proficient in reading by 2025. It was one of a dozen grants awarded statewide this year for summer reading programs, and state officials plan to compile data and best practices from the sites.

Education commissioner Candice McQueen visited students at Camp Explore.
PHOTO: Jeanne Fain
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits students at Camp Explore.

At Camp Explore, participants either raised or maintained their reading levels during four weeks, especially crucial during the summer, when students often drop in reaching achievement, according to Jeanne Fain, the Lipscomb University researcher who designed the camp.

Turns out, Fain said, that having fun is a proven technique to boost literacy — and one often missing from classrooms.

“There are very real, research-based reasons for what they (read), what they (did),” Fain said. “Why do we only give space for fun in the summer? This could happen all year.”

Camp Explore focused primarily on English language learners, a growing Nashville student population for which Tennessee’s reading gaps are particularly wide.

J.E. Moss students who are native English speakers also attended Camp Explore. Segregating ELL students is a big mistake, Fain said.

“You want to be speaking with someone who has knowledge of the language,” she said. “Talk is missing in a lot of classrooms, and it’s really troubling for multiple language learners.”

Each day after being served breakfast, kids spent their mornings being read to by their teachers before breaking up in small groups where they read a book together. After lunch, they picked from electives such as science — where students built ramps for toy cars — and cooking or music.

The children received visits from Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam, as well as Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. They also went on field trips. Last Friday, Nashville bookstore Parnassus brought its bookmobile and bookstore dog Bella to the camp. All of the kids got signed copies of a book by Susan Eaddy, who lives and works in Nashville.

Recommended reading from Camp Explore

    • Any Questions by Marie-Louis Gay
    • Memoirs of a Hamster by Devin Scillian
    • My Pen by Christopher Myers
    • Help! We Need a Title by Herve Tullet
    • How to Read a Story by Kate Messner

Throughout the summer, the students wrote about everything they did. “It’s much easier to write if you have experiences, and I wanted to build those,” Fain said.

Fain provided each camper with backpacks and eight books to take home and read throughout the summer. She selected books with characters of color, because research shows that such books help students connect to literature, which then encourages them to bolster their literacy skills. She also selected multilingual books so that her bilingual students could read in their first languages — and so non-English-speaking parents could join in on the reading too.

Fain is distributing her reading list to schools across the state and donating extra books from camp to other districts. She is conducting her own research based on Camp Explore, using writing samples from the children and reading assessments administered by teachers.

Next year, Fain and Moss principal Carl Febles hope the camp can expand to serve 240 students because this year’s waiting list was so long and parents are eager to help their kids learn.

“(Camp Explore) has lit a fire in this community about having school services during the summer,” Febles said.

Most importantly, camp has gotten kids excited about reading.

“They came home and were like, ‘OK, Mom, it’s cool to read,” said Jessica Oglesby of her three sons, ages 8,6 and 5. “It was lovely.”