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News Brief

Jan. 18, 2024 |  By: Debra Chandler Landis - Missouri Independent

Coalition pushing to improve literacy rates for St. Louis Public Schools


By Debra Chandler Landis - Missouri Independent

A coalition of parents and community members in St. Louis Public Schools is demanding more transparency at local school board meetings and in-school reading tutors as part of an effort to deal with standardized test scores that show a huge chunk of the district’s students struggling to read at grade level.

The district’s current enrollment is 18,747 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Data show an estimated 80% of students are not reading at grade level. The rate increases to 87% for Black students, according to Chester Asher, founder of Coalition with STL Kids.

The district expects to unveil a plan sometime early this year to increase reading scores, boost literacy and help students experience “the joy of reading,” SLPS Superintendent Keisha Scarlett said in an interview for The Independent.

Asked about statistics showing the overwhelming number of students reading below grade level, Scarlett, a former Seattle educator who became the St. Louis schools superintendent in August, called the situation a “crisis.”

“One of my flagship goals as superintendent is to increase literacy,” she said.

Scarlett said details of the new literacy program are still being worked out, but that it will include students, teachers, parents and community members.

While acknowledging learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic as among the reasons for declining reading and other test scores in recent years, Asher said the majority of students were not reading at grade level poor prior to the pandemic. Of the St. Louis school district’s plans to increase literacy, Asher said results come from action.

“Currently, we have seen no action, only a continuation of the neglect of inner-city children,” Asher said. “Will the district be providing free in-person, high-dosage tutoring? Will they discuss literacy and data at board meetings? Will they join us on the St. Louis NAACP’s goal of closing the reading gap between the city and state by 2030?”

The St. Louis city chapter of NAACP is launching a “Right to Read” campaign this month, according to president Adolphus Pruitt, II, who said the organization will work with public, private and charter schools, along with parents, elected officials and community organizations.

“It is all of our responsibility,” Pruitt said of improving literacy. “Our intent is to create a model that NAACP branches across Missouri can implement. Reading levels across the state have been dropping.”

In 2018, just 14% of Black third-graders were reading at grade level. In 2022, the percentage was 9%.

Students performing at the below basic level “demonstrate minimal command of the knowledge and skills contained in the grade or course-level expectation,” according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which added that these students “need substantial academic support to be prepared for the next grade or course and to be on track for college and career readiness.”

The NAACP literacy program is geared to help all students improve their reading, Pruitt says. Among its benchmark goals is the number of Black third-graders by 2030 meet  or exceed the state’s average for third-grade reading proficiency. Educators across the U.S. say third-grade proficiency in reading is a bellwether for continuing academic success.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress assesses students in fourth and eighth-grades throughout the nation in math and reading every two years, though its 2021 assessment was delayed until 2022 because of the pandemic.

The Independent reported in 2022 that the state’s scores mirrored those of most other states, with decreases in both math and reading for both grade levels from the 2019 assessment. Only 28% of eighth-graders tested in reading were at or above proficient, compared to 33 % in 2019. For fourth graders, 30 % tested at or above proficient, compared to 34% in 2019 and 28% in 1998.

The Missouri Read, Lead, Exceed initiative is the state’s comprehensive plan to dedicate $25 million in state funding and just over $35 million in federal relief funding to support student literacy, Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an e-mail.

Under the plan, K-5 educators receive training in the Science of Reading, a body of multi-disciplinary research that looks at how the human brain learns to read and the factors behind proficient reading and writing scores and those that are less than proficient. The Science of Reading also includes five pillars identified as essential for reading proficiency: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

Helping children and older youth become stronger readers can “break a cycle of illiteracy and violence that disproportionately affects the Black community,” said St. Louis resident Keyon Watkins, who founded Black Men Read in the wake of his brother’s death in 2022 from gun violence. Members of the local group volunteer as readers and tutors.

Watkins believes Black Men Read is stirring excitement about reading.Citing weekly visits by volunteers to read books with children enrolled in  Head Start, Watkins said, “The children seem really excited to see us.”

McGown said a new state law requires reading programs in grades K-5 to be based in scientific research, and include phonemic awareness,  phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. Evidence-based reading instruction, McGowin noted, includes practices “that have been proven effective through evaluation of the outcomes for large numbers of students and are highly likely to be effective in improving reading if implemented with fidelity.”