At Summer Reading Camps, Birmingham Students And Teachers Prepare For Alabama’s New Literacy Law

 1540456600 
1626278908
Kimberly Isaac, who is a teacher at West End Academy, guides students in phonics practice at a summer literacy camp.

Kimberly Isaac, who is a teacher at West End Academy, guides students in phonics practice at a summer literacy camp.

Kyra Miles, WBHM

On a recent morning at West End Academy, vocabulary words lined the white board and students sat at their desks, practicing their writing and reading skills. It’s summer, but the students were excited and engaged as they prepared for next school year.

Rilee Winchester, 7, shared why she’s excited to start third grade.

“I’m more than excited, I’m happy,” Rilee said. “I want to get smarter and smarter every step I go.”

Rilee and her classmates were at a summer literacy camp, one of many in the Birmingham City school district for students in kindergarten through third grade. It’s a new way the district is trying to get students and teachers ready for an extra challenge this new school year: the Alabama Literacy Act.

State lawmakers passed the policy in 2019, but will go into effect this school year. It means that third graders must pass the reading portion of a new statewide test, called the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program. Or they risk being held back.

“It really places a sense of urgency for educators because we know that our students, you know, many of them do struggle with reading,” said Pamela Williams, who is the executive director of curriculum and instruction at Birmingham City Schools. “And they come to us struggling or they come to us not knowing the basic foundational skills that they need to become fluent readers.”

In 2019, 23% of Birmingham City Schools students were reading at or above grade level, according to the Alabama State Department of Education’s annual report card.

At the summer literacy camps, students received at least 90 minutes of reading a day using literacy kits provided by their schools. Teachers coached students in phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary and writing, among other skills.

More Challenges

But other factors make tackling this reading instruction even more difficult: learning loss from last year’s remote schooling, access to the internet and poverty in Birmingham City Schools. Sixty-eight percent of Birmingham City Schools students are considered economically disadvantaged.

“The majority of our kids fall into that low socioeconomic status,” Williams said. “So, yes, there is an equity issue because we had to offer the summer literacy programs at all of our schools because all of our schools had students that needed to attend those summer literacy camps.”

Kyra Miles,WBHM
Birmingham students practice reading on iPads at summer literacy camp.

Naomi Hupert, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center, studies literacy and digital learning with a focus on equity. She said that typically, schools in under-resourced communities struggle to retain teachers and often have less access to professional development resources to help them provide individualized instruction.

“Classes are more crowded — all the components that create an environment that’s not really going to support kids, especially kids who need a little bit of extra help,” Hupert said.

Over the past year, Birmingham City Schools have tried to address some of these challenges. The district offered educators training, resources and retreats so they can best support students.

But Hupert said that the Alabama Literacy Act itself already puts students at a disadvantage.

“Just in general, in terms of effectiveness, retention policies for third grade, for the most part, are not identified as being particularly effective, really, because third grade is too late,” Hupert said. “Often retention policies are almost like a punishment for a child for failing to learn to read. And really, a child is not responsible for his or her failure to learn to read. It’s all kinds of other circumstances in school settings.”

Still, retention policies are fairly common in the United States. With its new literacy act, Alabama joins 16 other states and Washington, D.C. that require third graders to demonstrate their skills in order to move onto the next grade.

Research from 2008 from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development shows that holding kids back in third grade does more harm than good in the long term. In the shorter term, these kinds of policies show that students will not need more remedial support, but it is not a holistic solution, according to Hupert.

She said that the responsibility falls on education policy-makers to make sure that teachers are trained and closely monitor students’ progress and that students get strong, early interventions rather than a punitive retention policy.

“Instead of making kids feel like they’ve done something wrong and have to be held back a year, you just want to give them all the support that they need from the earliest possible moment,” Hupert said.

Kyra Miles,WBHM
Toi Kimbrough guides her class of rising third graders as they practice reading sight words.

‘Give It All We Have’

Even with the pressure of the new literacy policy, Birmingham City Schools is trying to give students that kind of support with their summer literacy camps. Plus, educators want to help children develop a love of reading.

At West End Academy, Principal Chandra Watkins said she has concerns about the impact of the policy, but she also has a lot of drive and determination.

“I think our babies are going to struggle some, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves, our pant legs and go in to fight,” Watkins said. “ We’re going to give it all we have.”

If students do not show proficiency in the reading assessment test, schools can offer other options that allow a student to move on to the next grade. They’re called “good cause exemptions” and include students with disabilities, students who are learning English and children who have received intensive reading intervention for more than two years.

Birmingham City Schools plans to continue the literacy camps during breaks throughout the school year.

Kyra Miles is a Report for America Corps Member covering education for WBHM.

News from WBHM will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.

 

COVID vaccines for young children could be approved soon. Are Gulf States prepared?

Kids between the ages of 5-11 years old might be able to get vaccinated in the near future. Here’s why it would be a game-changer for the Gulf States, and how they’re preparing for the shot’s rollout.

Birmingham takes part in Embrace Mothers guaranteed income pilot

Single-mother households represent about 60% of all Birmingham households with children, according to Mayor Randall Woodfin's office. The mothers involved in the program will receive $375 a month for a year.

Birmingham debuts new tech hub to help solve crime in real time

Birmingham leaders officially opened the city's Real Time Crime Center Tuesday, a project intended to give the Birmingham Police Department new technological tools to help resolve crime more quickly.

More Black families in Birmingham find freedom in homeschooling

The face of homeschooling is changing and diversifying. In just a year, the number of Black families has increased five-fold— and for more reasons than COVID-19. Several families told WBHM they see homeschooling as a way to protect their children from educational racism.

As southern workers quit in record number, restaurants struggle to meet demands

Wages have gone up as restaurants try to hold onto their staff amid a record number of people quitting their jobs in the U.S., especially in the South.

A missing Alabama woman’s body is found in a parked, unoccupied police van

Christina Nance had been missing since Sept. 25, her family says. Video footage from that day shows her entering the van, which was in a police parking lot. Her body was found 12 days later.

More Education Coverage