Research shows again and again that a child's ability to read is paramount to future success. Without mastery of this fundamental building block of learning, students are typically doomed to struggle in not only English/language arts courses, but all courses including math and science. And these same students are among those most likely to drop out of high school.
It's why outgoing Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has, for the past three years, consistently pushed for an intense focus on literacy in our schools. "Between kindergarten and third grade students learn how to read," Zais said in a radio interview in May. "Between fourth grade and twelfth grade they read to learn. If a kid enters fourth grade not reading on grade level the chances are that that child will fall further and further behind."
Getting all of South Carolina's students reading on grade level by third grade would pay untold dividends for the state in terms of an educated workforce prepared for 21st century high-tech jobs, new industry attracted to the state, in part, by such a workforce and a decreased dependence on expensive state and federal safety nets such as Medicaid and subsidized housing.
So how do we start down the path of putting reading first? The S.C. Legislature will consider a requirement this session that all S.C. school districts and the state Department of Education operate summer reading camps for third-graders who are not reading at grade level. Many of the details have yet to be worked out. The budget recommendation won't get its first House subcommittee hearing until this week, meaning the current version will likely be very different from the final version.
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But as it stands now, the measure directs a paltry $1.2 million in state dollars to support the camps. Assuming that dollar figure doesn't change as the measure makes it way through the Legislature's budget process (and that's a big if) districts would have to pick up the majority of the tab for training and paying teachers, lighting and cooling school buildings usually closed in the summer months, paying for reading curriculum and transporting students to and from the camps.
Doing the math shows that school districts would get about $600 per student enrolled in the camps. (In the 2012-13 school year, nearly 2,000 of the more than 50,000 S.C. students who took the third-grade PASS test for reading did not meet standards, according to the state Department of Education.)
While we applaud state lawmakers' attention and effort on this front, the lack of state funding may doom this valiant endeavor and serve as a roadblock for future statewide initiatives to help students read. Lack of money may mean too few teachers or teachers not properly trained. The result may be that the very students who did not get the one-on-one attention in the regular classroom will not get it in the summer camp either. Or perhaps a district will reuse a reading curriculum vs. purchasing a new, research-based one aimed at struggling readers.
Lack of funding would be particularly apparent in the state's many rural districts where high levels of poverty and a lack of local school funding is a constant impediment to quality classroom experiences. Putting on a quality reading camp could easily become just one more "wish list" item along with a new roof for the elementary school and money to offer competitive salaries to veteran teachers.
That's why it's up to the state to stress that reading is the essential component to public education, encourage districts to put reading ahead of other needs and fund efforts that give struggling students multiple chances to master reading.
"Children's learning style can be very different," said Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, a former educator who supports the budget measure. "The more opportunities we have of giving children different ways of learning to read, the better chance of them succeeding."
If properly done, these summer camps could provide that second chance for the state's neediest students to learn how to read.
But to make it work, the General Assembly must direct more state dollars to, at the very least, its cash-poor districts with large percentages of students not reading on grade level. Lawmakers should also consider attaching more strings to the state dollars, requiring small class sizes, reading specialists and innovative curriculum while also allowing districts that already have successful reading programs to use these new state dollars to build on their existing programs.
It's exciting that the General Assembly is talking about reading as the key to improving our state. Let's hope these representatives don't fumble on the details.