When more than 50 Memphians gathered to talk about early childhood and literacy with us, we heard a lot of concerns and hopes for Memphis’ littlest learners.

From confusion about the location of preschool centers and how many seats are open to story ideas on how socioemotional factors affect young students – the audience at our “Pre-K to Third-Grade Reading: Parents, what do you want to know?” event left our reporters with many story leads to track down and even more questions to answer.

Held at the Benjamin Hooks Central Library, our event in late August was part of Chalkbeat’s seven-city “listening tour” this summer and fall, allowing our reporters to convene public conversations and learn from residents in the communities we serve.

We shaped our talks around some of the biggest education issues affecting Shelby County today – a new retention policy aimed at boosting the reading acumen of third-graders and an unprecedented push to fund more prekindergarten classrooms.

Now, we want to hear from even more of you on how we can better report on these topics.

That’s because early childhood – especially how our youngest students learn to read – is one of Chalkbeat Tennessee’s main focus areas this school year.  It’s important to us that our readers drive our coverage. So, read below the ideas that came out of our event and email us with your own thoughts and questions. We’re listening at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Attendees were divided into small groups to answer questions like “What issues do you think most impact a young child’s ability to learn?” and “Why do you think Tennessee and Shelby County have struggled to get their youngest students reading at higher rates?”

Throughout the evening, trauma and other factors that affect student learning outside of school came up over and over again.

“Family stressors are the biggest detriment to a child’s ability to learn,” said one participant, while another emphasized that parents and teachers need more training and awareness on how trauma can affect the brain development of young children.

Attendees were divided into small groups to answer questions like “What issues do you think most impact a young child’s ability to learn?”
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

This is a focus for Shelby County Schools, which is planning to pilot a restorative discipline program, where 30 schools will have a “reset room” with dedicated staff. With the approval of a teacher, students will be able to go there for support if they are struggling with behavior in class. Designed to help reduce suspensions and expulsions, it is part of Shelby County Schools stated efforts to become “a fully trauma-informed and trauma-responsive district.”

This year, our reporters are examining how adverse childhood trauma affects students and teachers and how schools are dealing with it.  Researchers have tied stressful events such as divorces, deportations, poverty, neglect, sexual abuse, gun violence, and other traumas to lower math and reading scores, poor health, and behavior problems.

Do you have an idea for a Chalkbeat article on this? Email us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org

Another major point of discussion was Shelby County Schools’ upcoming retention policy that will hold back second-grade students who aren’t reading on grade level. The policy will begin with second-graders in the 2021-22 school year.

Shelby County Schools is aiming to have 90% of its third-graders reading proficiently by the year 2025. But currently, only about 24% of them were proficient in reading on the state’s standardized assessment.

Parents, educators and community members attended Chalkbeat Tennessee’s listening tour on early education and early literacy.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kathryn Palmer

“I want to be clear, it starts in pre-K,” district Superintendent Joris Ray told Chakbeat in a previous interview. “At the end of the day, it’s about our students really understanding and knowing how to read. The incoming kindergarten students will be the first class impacted by the policy. So, we have two years to really look and see what we need to do to make adjustments and get better.”

Attendees at our Listening Tour also said that a more effective prekindergarten curriculum could lead to stronger readers. Others pointed to a need for skilled teachers who stay in classrooms, and still others said more parental involvement would make the difference in boosting literacy rates.

Participants were mixed on whether or not the district’s new retention policy was the best way to build better readers.

One parent, who had also taught second grade for eight years, said it would be unfair to move students forward if they cannot read. She said she had held students back, and some of them went on to be honor roll students after receiving another year of instruction.

Another parent asked what Shelby County Schools would do in addition to the policy.

“Does SCS have strategies in place now for kids before they get to the second grade,” she asked. “Do they have a plan to remediate students who fail?”