Delving into an issue she said was crucial to tackle in order to combat inequities in Arkansas, Angela Duran explored ways to help children read at grade level during an address on Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff.
Duran, the campaign director for the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, spoke to Rotary Club members who were gathered at the Pine Bluff Country Club. Duran is familiar with the area, having once run a nonprofit organization in Pine Bluff called Southern Good Faith Fund. She was also once a member of the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff.
“Our goal is that every child in Arkansas read on grade level,” said Duran, of Little Rock. Duran said the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading was launched about seven years ago by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
On its website, the Arkansas Campaign defines itself as a “collaboration of state and local nonprofits, parents and families, government agencies, foundations, educators, business leaders, and policymakers committed to the goal that all Arkansas children will read at grade-level by the end of third grade.”
The Arkansas Campaign’s focus, Duran stressed, is riveted on the third grade as a pivotal stage in a child’s education.
“Up until then, children are learning how to read,” she said. “After that, if they don’t have those basics, they’re going to fall behind in their science, their history, even their math.”
Duran said the Arkansas Campaign focuses on five points in its quest to help children read well. She noted, first of all, that “family and community engagement” are key forces, and she mentioned a few relevant resources – such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library – that help children to read and to obtain books.
“There are some sparks of light happening around the state,” said Duran, who earned a master’s degree in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
A second factor, Duran explained, is a child’s level of readiness to learn upon entering kindergarten, and a third is chronic absence.
“We found that 12 percent of children in Arkansas from kindergarten through third grade were missing a month or more of school,” Duran said, noting that the organization has worked with about 45 districts in the state to help them reduce that number.
Describing the fourth area, Duran said the organization studies closely “what happens in the classroom” during the school year and noted that the assessment tool the state currently uses – the ACT Aspire – indicates that 37 percent of Arkansas third-graders were reading on grade level in the 2016-2017 school year. That’s up two percentage points from the previous year.
“That’s great, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Report cards on particular Arkansas schools and districts can be found at https://adesrc.arkansas.gov.
The Arkansas Campaign’s fifth area of focus, Duran said, is summer learning.
“We know that only about a fifth of kids in Arkansas have access to a quality summer learning opportunity,” she said. “If kids don’t have access to that, they end up falling two or three months behind every summer – so much so that by the time they reach fifth grade, they can literally be a year or two behind their peers.”
Duran praised the Arkansas Department of Education’s R.I.S.E. Arkansas initiative, which stands for Reading Initiative for Student Excellence. Duran said the initiative began in 2017, with a goal of improving students’ reading significantly within a few years. According to its website, R.I.S.E. Arkansas strives to coordinate “a statewide reading campaign with community partners, parents, and teachers to establish the importance of reading in homes, schools, and communities.”
As she contemplated ways to improve reading locally, Duran extolled Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which she said has been in use Jefferson County. The program allows young children to receive new books each month.
“Just having print, being able to feel books and see them, is a good first step for a lot of kids,” she said.
She also mentioned the program “Reach Out and Read,” which, according to its website, “promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud.”
As Duran underlined the importance of parental involvement, she mentioned a program called “Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngster,” with a website at www.hippyarkansas.org/.
Duran also noted a host of organizations throughout the state with which the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading collaborates.
After the presentation, Carolyn Blakely, president of the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff, stressed the importance of the subject Duran explored.
“It’s something we’ve got to get done,” Blakely said, referring to an improvement in student reading.
Diane Tatum, president-elect of the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff, introduced Duran, mentioning a host of past positions, degrees and other accomplishments.
“She focuses on child care, national services and youth development,” Tatum said.
An awareness of economic inequities within the state, Duran said, supplies a key reason for her current work.
“We have a lot of issues around equity in Arkansas,” Tatum said after the presentation, “and to me, education is the main tool we can use to close the gap.”
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