Community effort boosts reading scores at BCS


By Challis Morgan

Birmingham community leaders stood in the crowded lobby of Tuggle Elementary School on a recent afternoon. They clutched books, preparing to spend time reading to students. It was part of an event with the nonprofit Better Basics. 

Among the guest readers was Jeff Drew. Drew grew up in the 1960’s, in an area of Birmingham known as Dynamite Hill. Homes there were regularly bombed by white supremacists. Drew’s parents also hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited Birmingham.

“It was my destiny to be at the table with Dr. King and I learned a lot,” Drew told a classroom full of children. “I try to pass what I learned on to everybody that I meet.”

Drew’s time reading with students is just one example of a community effort that resulted in a notable jump in test scores for the Birmingham City Schools (BCS).

Results from the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program released last month showed 81% of third graders in the district are now reading at or above grade level. This is up from just 53% on the previous year’s standardized test. That’s a big deal because, under the Alabama Literacy Act, a child who can’t read on grade level by third grade could be held back.

Pressure had been on school officials throughout the year.

What I can tell you is as the literacy coordinator, everything that I know to have done, I did,” said Jacqueline Dent, BCS kindergarten through fifth grade literacy and humanities coordinator. 

She said the district has been strategic in how they handled the reading curriculum this past school year.

They did three major things.

First, they provided extra support for teachers. 

“I took the planning times of every third grade teacher in the district and coordinated zoom trainings,” Dent said.

Teachers spent the time breaking down the curriculum standards and identifying ways to assess students, provide feedback and make adjustments throughout the school year. They also had access to a reading specialist 

“Every one of our schools has a reading specialist that was there to be like a coach and a support system for that teacher,” Dent said.

Next, the district held monthly workshops for parents to give them practical tips on how to help their children.

“Like when your child is watching television, have you ever thought about turning on the closed captioning so that they can see the print and the words on the screen?” Dent said.

Lasty, the district utilized its literacy partners in the community. Third graders received additional reading time through programs like Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Page Pals, and the nonprofits STAIR and Better Basics. 

BCS’ superintendent wanted Better Basics in every school in the district. That meant the organization would double its footprint. 

“We’re serving over 700 kids right now. Last year, it was more like 350,” said Catherine Goudreau, Better Basics executive director. “We just started to kind of partner together and say ‘what do we have to do to make this happen?’”

So they got to work hiring more teachers and securing more funding. 

“There’s definitely a high emotional toll to all of it. But I think what it has produced is a higher level of partnership and a greater sense of community. Everybody kind of wrapping themselves around this unified mission.”

And based on the test scores the effort appears to have paid off. 


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