Forum: Third Grade Reading Key to Success; Teaching Must Begin Earlier

Titus DosRemedios, director of Research and Policy at Boston-based Strategies for Children, was one of the speakers at last Wednesday’s “Haverhill Reads: An Initiative for School Success” forum. The discussion was broadcast live by 97.9 WHAV FM. (WHAV News photograph.)

Third grade students who have not mastered reading are more likely to drop out of high school, cost taxpayers money in healthcare and social services over their lifetimes and go to jail.

Those stark facts were presented last Wednesday night at Consentino School, during a forum, “Haverhill Reads: An Initiative for School Success.” The forum was broadcast live by 97.9 WHAV FM. Speakers said Haverhill’s third-graders lag behind students in similarly sized cities. Titus DosRemedios, director of Research and Policy at Boston-based Strategies for Children, explained.

“When we compare Haverhill to similar comparison cities, we find that it still trails behind Salem, Leominster, Westfield, Barnstable, Peabody, Quincy—these are small cities with demographics similar to Haverhill,” he said.

He said Haverhill began to fall below the state average a dozen years ago. The numbers are worse for third graders from poor families. “In Haverhill, 37 percent of our low-income students—students from low-income families—score proficient on the test.”

Solving the problem, participants agreed, means beginning earlier—educating children as young as toddlers. Even then, however, speaker DosRemedios acknowledged school districts across the country have met with only limited success. “None of the communities that we have talked about today, or none of the 300 that are part of the national campaign, have completely solved this. Alright. It is something that takes time.”

Amy O’Leary, Strategies for Children’s Early Education for All director, said a Harvard report highlighted possible solutions. These include language training beginning at birth, assessing students earlier than third grade, partnering with families and better teacher training. She praised the current school administration for winning a pre-school planning grant.

During a panel discussion, state Rep. Andy X. Vargas, a member of the legislature’s Education Committee, pointed out the state last adjusted how it pays local communities for education 25 years ago.

“The last time we looked at our funding formula seriously for education was 1993—the year I was born, coincidentally,” he said.

Vargas said his committee recognizes the state must do more to pay for public education before kindergarten and after high school.

Diane Palmaccio, a reading specialist at Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School, said greater parental involvement is needed, perhaps with the encouragement of non-school groups such as church and social services staff.  “I think we have to show them how simple it is to be a partner in their child’s education.”

Haverhill school’s District Supervisor of Social Studies and World Languages Rashaun Jamall Martin said there are many early literacy programs from which to choose, but Haverhill needs to pick one. “I just want somebody…just to decide what the literacy programs are going to be, and then let’s stick to them, let’s fund them and let’s get them districtwide,” he said.

Economist Thomas Granneman called on the Haverhill School Committee to give incoming Superintendent Margaret Marotta the money she needs to implement reading programs. “When economists talk about public programs, they often use words like equity and efficiency. Equity meaning everyone is treated the same—at least equally or fairly in some sense. Efficiency meaning that we’re using resources wisely to get the most value from the dollars that we spent. Both concepts, I think, equity and efficiency, are relevant for tonight’s discussion.”

School Committee Member Gail M. Sullivan agreed. She called for hiring an English language supervisor and creating a strategic plan where reading is the number one goal, among other suggestions.

The Haverhill Education Coalition-sponsored discussion was moderated by Noemi Custodia-Lora, Northern Essex Community College’s vice president for its Lawrence campus.