First Person

Commentary: Early Literacy Act's economic appeal

This commentary was submitted by Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds, and Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In Colorado today, 26 percent of our students are not reading at grade level, as evidenced by the CSAP. The more rigorous national assessment, the NAEP test, indicates that 62 percent of incoming Colorado fourth graders read below grade level.

We know from research and experience that children who do not read well by the end of third grade are far less likely to finish high school, far less likely to attend college and far less likely to land a decent job. Not only does that have educational implications, but societal and economic impacts as well.

Colorado’s major industries are creating jobs requiring higher education. By 2018, six years from now, 67 percent of Colorado’s jobs will require some level of college. Yet, only 46 percent of our citizens are currently qualified to fill those openings. To meet that workforce demand, the state must dramatically reduce high school dropout rates and increase college completion. This process requires that we ensure our youngest students can read.

At the current rate, each class of dropouts costs Colorado $4.5 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes. This compounds each year and the lost opportunities are devastating to both the individual dropout and the state’s fiscal condition.

Imagine a manufacturer losing one-quarter of its product between the beginning and the end of its own manufacturing line. In business, that would qualify as a crisis, and that is the condition of Colorado’s education system.

Because of the far-reaching implications for our state’s economy, Colorado Succeeds and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce are working to educate the business community on the urgency and importance of improving early literacy. Together, these organizations are leveraging the voices of business leaders across the state—those that recognize that the best long term economic development tool is a more productive K-12 education system.

Given the importance of literacy to our future, we are fortunate that bipartisan legislation, the Early Literacy Act (HB12-1238), is currently being considered by the Colorado General Assembly. This legislation establishes the goal and process of ensuring all students can and will read proficiently by the end of third grade. It also provides accountability, parental involvement and the proper support for teachers and students to succeed.

The bill recently passed the state House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority, but as it makes its way to the state Senate two concerns have been raised. One concern is about retention being overly aggressive and the other suggests that this bill is an unfunded mandate. We respectfully disagree with these concerns.

Regarding retention, it is critical to note that the Early Literacy Act is focused on intervening early to get kids on track before it is too late. When we intervene properly and early enough, the need for retention will be rare. It will be reserved for children who, despite consistent support, remain functionally illiterate. The repeated year would allow educators to invest another year in more aggressive strategies to help a child learn how to read. While retention is included in the policy as a last resort, it is certainly an important inclusion.

Rigorous studies of test-based retention policies and practices in places where they have been properly implemented find that it is a necessary tool to ensure that early grade literacy education appropriately prepares students for what is required in school and in life. Research demonstrates that when retention is combined with rigorous interventions, the effect on students’ achievement and their self-confidence is significant, positive, and lasting.

The alternative is passing the students along to next grade level where they will lack the reading skills necessary to keep up with their peers in every other subject. This hardly seems fair to the kids. We have raised this issue for the past two years and explored other approaches, as doing nothing is no longer an option. We have not seen a better plan. After much analysis, we are confident that a policy solution for improving early literacy must provide struggling readers with the gift of time. So what about the funding?

From 2000-2011 the state invested $200 million in early literacy programs through Reading First and Read to Achieve and Colorado’s reading proficiency rates have remained flat. At the peak, Colorado invested $27 million in the ’04-’05 and ’05-’06 school years and actually saw reading proficiency rates drop by a percentage point. At the same time, per pupil operating revenue was increasing annually from ’01-’10.

The data clearly shows that funding without a corresponding focus on early literacy is not enough. It is time to fundamentally shift the culture in our schools to make early literacy a priority for all students without excuses or exceptions.

The most recent revenue forecast is better than predicted. While it does not restore funding to previous levels, it does provide money that nobody was expecting. With the agreement about importance of early literacy, why wouldn’t we combine these additional dollars with the strong policy framework created by the Early Literacy Act to ensure that every student has the reading skills that they need to succeed?

We know that the Early Literacy Act is no silver bullet, and it will not remedy all the challenges of Colorado’s K-12 education system, but it is a sizeable and necessary step toward that goal. Unless we do something today to address this reading gap, we will not improve high school graduation rates. We will not have enough skilled workers to fill our jobs and effectively compete in the global workforce. We will not have enough qualified candidates for our military. Most importantly, we will not deliver on the inherent commitment to give every child a real chance to achieve.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.