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Ras Baraka is the mayor of the City of Newark. This first appeared on nj.com.
We can learn a valuable lesson from the Maasai tribe of Kenya. Respected for their fierce intelligence and unrivaled battle skills, these warriors reveal their wisdom by greeting each other with “Kasserian Ingera?”
“How are the children?”
The expression transcends our customary “How are you?” because if the children are safe, protected, cared for and thriving, then it’s understood that the community at large is also well.
When I envision Newark as a safer, more educated and greener city, at the core of that vision is the wellness of our children.
There are many indicators of our children’s wellness in Newark, and one we must be determined to improve is our third-grade literacy scores.
Why focus on third grade?
Because there is convincing evidence that a child with low third-grade literacy proficiency has a much greater chance of not completing high school than those children with higher reading scores.
Children who are not proficient in reading by third grade are up to six times less likely to finish high school.
So, as with many educational programs, it is imperative we start early and with ferocious intent to strongly emphasize reading skills as early as possible, from prenatal development to third grade. Up through the end of third grade, children are learning to read. After that, reading itself is a tool for further learning — a way to draw knowledge from reading materials.
By fourth grade, reading is essential for students to comprehend all school curricula, and those who fall behind have a difficult time catching up.
Unfortunately, the National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES) has compiled dismal statistics that prove our culture is missing the mark in getting children to read.
In 2019, the NCES reported only 35% of fourth graders were at or above proficiency. The number dropped to 33% for eighth graders. While slightly improving to 37% of high school seniors, national scores fall well below desired outcomes.
COVID-19 caused major adverse academic impact and average reading scores dropped lower for both fourth- and eighth-grade students by 3 percentage points in 2022 compared to 2019.
On a local level, the New Jersey Department of Education’s results from the 2022 New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA), showed fewer than one in five Newark third graders passed the NJSLA literacy test. More alarming to the City of Newark, the mean Language Arts Literacy score for all third graders across the district was well below the lowest level of expectation. In nine of our schools, the percentage of third graders passing the English exam were in the single digits.
This is not only unacceptable but an urgent crisis, and dangerously harmful to the overall intellect, safety and economic growth of our individual residents and city.
To meet this emergency, I convened a brain trust of city government and board of education officials, neighborhood and business stakeholders to develop a 10-point actionable plan to get our reading proficiency back on track.
Here is a summary.
What Schools Can Do
1. Implement one-on-one high-dosage tutoring during the school day and after school. Tutoring sessions will also include practice tests for standardized tests.
2. Select books that reflect the student’s cultural and ethnic background. Giving students culturally relevant texts has proven to increase reading performance.
3. Incorporate more writing to improve reading comprehension. Have students write about what they have read and practice reading and writing for the end-of-the-year standardized tests.
What Parents Can Do
4. Enroll children in free Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 programs and ensure everyday attendance, to give them high-quality learning in reading and writing, math, science, visual and performing arts, as well as health, physical education and social development.
5. Read to your children and listen to your children read. Studies show that reading aloud to children builds vocabulary, improves comprehension, improves active listening, strengthens fluency and reduces stress.
6. Get quality prenatal care and read to unborn children. Good prenatal care and reading to unborn children as early as 18 weeks builds healthy brain development and lays an important literacy foundation.
7. Build vocabulary. At every stage of development, parents should teach children to use words and practice vocabulary.
What the Community Can Do.
8. Community partners should mandate that funded programs and sports incorporate some level of reading or literacy component and offer tutoring.
9. Create literacy programs throughout the city and publish a calendar with literacy events. Offer incentives for families to get library cards. Invite families to city-wide literacy events, such as Literacy Night at schools, Reading Under the Stars, The 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten Literacy Fair and the Mayor’s Book Club.
10. Distribute books to help families develop home libraries. Children who grow up in a home with 500 books will extend their education by more than three years over children with few or no books in the home.
The sum of these actions is that all of us, as a human family, must revive reading as the precious tool it is. By presenting it to our children, we expand knowledge, improve communication and cultivate agile comprehension. The resulting understanding and wisdom will make their impact on the world more positive, more constructive. More healthful and compassionate.
Future generations deserve this effort from us, but the benefit can be immediate if we begin today to steep our children in the supportive energy of these 10 action steps. By shifting our community focus and perceptions, it won’t be long before we can confidently proclaim, “The children are well.”