A little more than half – or 56 percent – of all third grade students in San Diego Unified met or exceeded English language arts standards on the latest statewide Smarter Balanced Test and now the superintendent is making big promises to improve student literacy rates.

“This district has pledged to have 100 percent of our children reading at grade level in third grade, and I could not be prouder of that commitment,” Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a school board trustee who was appointed earlier this year and is running for a full term, said at a recent school board meeting. Superintendent Cindy Marten’s highest goal is to eliminate illiteracy, Whitehurst-Payne said.

The literacy pledge is composed of a four-year commitment that will – for the first time – be used in the school board’s evaluation of the superintendent, Whitehurst-Payne said.

The pledge is also part of the district’s larger goals to close the achievement gap and increase student equity – and it ties into the LCAP, the district’s comprehensive plan for student achievement.

And while third-grade students at some district schools seem to need little district intervention – such as at La Jolla Elementary, where 96 percent of third-graders met or exceeded English language arts standards – other students remain in dire need.

At Ibarra Elementary, only 28 percent of third-graders met or exceeded the English testing standard. At Valencia Park Elementary, 25 percent. At Keiller Leadership Academy, 12 percent.

Marten said her plans to improve scores include focusing on effective literacy programs for students in pre-kindergarten grades and increasing student attendance.

“You can’t close the achievement gap if you’re not honest with yourself about how students are doing,” Marten said at a recent school board meeting. “We know early learning is the first pathway toward closing the achievement gap. The achievement gap doesn’t even open if you keep it closed from the beginning and you give students high-quality early learning.”

Still, when it comes to improving student achievement, district officials are pleading with families to help. A few weeks ago, they launched a new family and community engagement team, which includes a focus on early literacy.

“We believe families and schools are valued and trusted partners who share in the commitment to, and responsibility of, educating our children,” said Stan Anjan, the engagement team’s executive director, reading from the group’s belief statements at a school board meeting.

Educators and parents I asked said the literacy problem can be solved and some provided suggestions on how best to approach the issue.

“It starts with parents showing children the importance of reading,” Lynn Copeland, a parent wrote. “Once a child starts getting passed along, they fall more behind each year which destroys their self-confidence in their ability to catch up.”

Wendell Bass III, a parent and athletic coach wrote, “I think that some teachers just move past the kids who struggle to read because they do not want to take the time to invest in the one who is struggling.” He said his daughter struggled with reading until a teacher helped her, and, now, his daughter loves to read.

Roberta Brodsky Connors, a parent who emigrated from Russia to the United States when she was a child, said a love of reading must be fostered before a child enters school: “To be a good reader and a good writer, one must spend hours reading books, not hours watching TV,” she wrote. She didn’t learn English until she was 7 years old, but she read voraciously and skipped third grade about a year later.

“It’s easy to try to place blame, but instead, I teach,” Tamera Muhammad, a parent and educator wrote. “I know that not all children enter school ready to read. My own child has struggled. And he doesn’t fit the ‘parents don’t care’ mold.’”

Meanwhile, Trustee Richard Barrera recently said Marten’s completely open and transparent about the many challenges teachers sometimes face when educating students who are unprepared to enter early grades.

A few weeks ago, the district hosted its first student equity coalition meeting. The coalition – composed of educators, students, district staff and community partners – focused on increasing opportunities for all students and not letting issues like racism and bias continue to be barriers to what students can achieve, Barrera said at a school board meeting.

“I think we’ve always known that the circumstances that students face outside of schools has a big impact in how well they’re able to do at school,” Barrera said. “But, I think, traditionally the public school system has said that, ‘That’s somebody else’s job’ or ‘how can we possibly take that work on’, and now we’re saying ‘we’re ready to take that work on…with tens of thousands of families in our district.’”

Marten said it’s important to continue looking for ways to improve student achievement.

“When students aren’t learning, there might be many reasons why, and it’s never the students’ fault,” Marten said at a school board meeting. “We look students in the eye and we say, ‘We believe in you, we know you have a gift to give, we know that you have a strength and an ability and it’s our job to allow that to come out.’”

Rachel Evans

Rachel Evans is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at rachel.evans@voiceofsandiego.org

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