This feature story is part of a series focused exclusively on literacy. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
As a superintendent, I am often reminded of the increasing demands placed on our teachers, staffs and school leaders. We continuously search for ways to advance the important work of educating our students. One of the major challenges we encounter is the constantly changing face of public education in America. The days of educating students the way the majority of us were educated are long gone. We must not only adapt to these changes, we must become leaders in the teaching and learning movement.
Fluency in reading continues to be critical to success and must always be a focal point of education. Today’s students, however, are much different than those we sat next to in classrooms of the past and have opportunities that are far more diverse. This diversity requires a different approach to education in both pedagogy and environment. In addition, parents, communities, and teachers are also different, coupled with the difficult task of creating and sustaining high quality schools.
In an attempt to create the right conditions for success and, more importantly, “undermine the acceptance of failure and create a new norm,” our district launched three very important initiatives:
We adopted the theme “All hands on deck” to embrace and empower stakeholders tied to our overall mission.
We anchored No. 1 with another theme, “No child left out,” to establish a solid foundation and a delivery system designed to take into account the realities our students face daily.
We implemented a literacy/reading program and branded it “30 for 30” — modeled after the ESPN sports series (something our students were familiar with). However, our design had nothing to do with sports. To facilitate No. 1, we committed to ensuring 30 minutes of active reading at every school in our district every day and asked our parents to partner with us to ensure 30 minutes of active reading at home daily.
So, our students began the journey of one hour of active reading daily at the beginning of our school year.
As a result of our three initiatives, our school district has experienced unprecedented growth in reading, language usage, and math. Some of our lowest performing schools have suddenly become some of our highest performing. While it is still too early to celebrate, we feel that choosing literacy as our “one thing” has created the pathway that all other tenants of our schools operate.
If a child can read, he/she can learn anything, can do anything and can become anything they so desire. Add to the equation great leaders, teachers, engaged parents and community, districts have the ability to explore many great possibilities for children and schools.
We must employ a clear vision and lock arms around a complex educational and societal issue that has now become an epidemic. In some instances, educators have begun to accept failure of some students as “normal.” When failure is normalized, we, in essence, are accepting defeat in the face of adversity and the critical issues we encounter. A considerable amount of research has been published regarding the status of education. There are many reasons cited for the present disengagement and academic decline of today’s youth. Most of these theories focus on three central themes: attitudes, social outlets in school and gender identity issues. Peer and teacher influence and school climate are of particular importance in the success or failure of our students.
Ultimately, we must adopt our own belief system and find ways to succeed in spite of the odds in our attempt to create the right “conditions” for success in our schools and districts. The late educator, author and researcher Dr. Ron Edmonds stated, “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”
Further, a penetrating statement by NYU Steinhardt’s Dr. Pedro Noguera on the patterns of failure in our schools states, “These patterns have become so common and widespread that a recitation of the numbers no longer generates alarm or even surprise. The real danger is that too many educators and too many members of the public at large have begun to accept this dismal state of affairs as the norm. Moreover, the most important underlying challenge is to undermine that acceptance and create a new norm in which the facts are no longer acceptable, or worse yet, expected as a matter of course.”
We are already looking forward to planning for next year. We will continue to simplify the complexities of education by keeping the main thing, the main thing. Our main thing is creating a literate society by focusing our time, energy and resources on exploring every possibility that exists for every child. We believe very strongly in the fact that, “nobody rises to low expectations.” This belief will anchor our district as we lock in to advance the critical work ahead of us. Our underlying belief system facilitates every thought we have about our students. Our passion propels our action. We are well on our way to creating a new norm and couldn’t be more excited about what lies ahead.
Dr. Stephen G. Peters is superintendent of Laurens School District 55 in Laurens, SC, and sits on the board of the International Literacy Association.