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  • Joanne Jacobs

NAACP pushes for literacy reform: Teach our kids to read


Black leaders have transformed reading instruction in northern Virginia, reports Sarah Carr in the Washington Post.


The Fairfax County NAACP’s small education committee no longer concentrates on "Confederate school names and acts of racism against individual students," she writes. The priority is changing how public schools teach reading and support struggling readers, says Sujatha Hampton, who chairs the committee.


The nearly 20-point gap in reading pass rates between Black and White students "has persisted since the district first made 'minority achievement' a priority in 1984," Hampton told Carr.

The cause, as activists saw it, was partly “the absence of systematic, cumulative, phonics-based reading instruction in the early elementary classroom,” they later wrote in an open letter. “All the research suggests that this shift would have the most immediate and profound impact on closing the achievement gap.” Some teachers had always incorporated phonics — intentionally sequenced lessons in how to sound out words from letters — but the district had not made it a requirement.

Fairfax County is now training elementary school administrators and teachers in a "science of reading" program called LETRS, writes Carr. All K-2 teachers were given and told to use scripted lesson plans featuring phonics.

A growing number of NAACP groups are focusing on reading as a "path to social justice," writes Carr.

The Fairfax County NAACP is working with Decoding Dyslexia Virginia and the Fairfax County Special Education PTA to push for change.


In nearby Arlington, NAACP co-chair Symone Walker also is pushing for better reading instruction. She spent years trying to get help for her son. She blames "lower expectations for Black kids" for teachers lack of alarm about his reading.


He was passed along with mostly good grades, even though he "struggled to sound out and recognize words, and he frequently had to guess based on context." Finally, the summer after seventh grade, Walker arranged an independent evaluation: Her son was severely dyslexic and years behind in reading.


"In eighth grade, still lacking sufficient academic help, Jackson began to act out, throwing paper and stalking around the classroom," Walker told Carr. The parents took out a home-equity loan to pay for tuition at a private school focusing on students with dyslexia.


Arlington Superintendent Francisco Durán, who arrived in 2020, is working on training reading specialists and elementary teachers in research-based reading instruction, writes Carr.

“Students who are struggling with reading need very explicit phonics instruction,” Durán says. When that’s not present, “it’s our students of color, our English learners, and our students with disabilities who get most lost,” he adds.
. . . early results have been positive, with a 20 percent decrease in the number of students needing intensive reading intervention in the early elementary grades, Durán says.

He hopes to extend help to high school students who aren't reading well.


Dyslexia activists have allied with Black and Latino families to push for a "right to read," writes Carr in a Washington Post-Hechinger Report story. It can take "time, money and experience navigating complicated, sometimes intransigent bureaucracies" to get a dyslexic child access to a trained reading specialist or a private school focused on children with language disabilities.


In Boston's public and private schools, White students are more likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia, and "have greater access than Black or Latino students to the most intensive, effective reading supports," she writes.


It's a national problem, said Resha Conroy, founder of the New York-based Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children. “We’ve long talked about book deserts — geographic locations where there isn’t a lot of access to books,” she said. “We can apply this to structured literacy deserts — places where if your child needs a reading intervention or support, it’s very difficult to find."


Roxann Harvey, who is Black, struggled to get help for her children in Boston schools. Her daughter got time with a reading specialist starting in second grade, but the school wanted to transfer her son, who has autism and dyslexia, to a program she believed would be focused on behavior rather than reading. His sister's reading specialist volunteered to help him, and he began to progress.

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