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John Monfredo: Tackling the Achievement Gap in Worcester Schools

Saturday, June 30, 2012


"If you're going to equalize the academic playing field, you've got to get the kids in early childhood programs." - Paul Vallas, author

Finally the Federal Government and many of our states are starting to realize that if you want to reduce the achievement gap in education, you need to start before the child enters school, and continue during those early elementary years. I have espoused that view for many years and have been outspoken on the issue of early childhood education.

The data for years has stated that all children, especially those in the inner city, need to be engaged in early literacy programs if we are to make a difference in their education. Let’s look what’s happening.

Nine states will divide $500 million in federal money to foster early learning reform that will improve the quality of programs and the educational outcomes for children birth to age 5… One of the nine states is Massachusetts.
In addition, “A Kids Count” special report released by the Casey Foundation says achieving reading proficiency by the end of the third grade is critical because that is when emphasis shifts “from learning to read to reading to learn.” If they read poorly, they learn slowly.

Reading proficiency by the third grade is one of most important indicators of a student’s success in the future. Low income students are the hardest hit, with 83% of low-income third graders currently reading below grade level. Educators and researchers have long recognized the importance of mastering reading by the end of grade three. 

In the Worcester Public Schools, according to last year’s MCAS test, we had 334 third grade students take the test. In that group, 72% receive free/reduced lunch and 84% of those students scored below grade level. So, we can conclude that poverty is a factor in academic achievement. Any plan put forth needs to address the needed resources for those children at risk.

The Casey Foundation offers four recommendations for improving reading achievement:

- Develop a coherent system of early care and education from birth through grade three.
- Provide the tools and support to help parents, families and caregivers in their role as a child’s first teacher.
- Ensure that all children have access to high quality educational opportunities that raise expectations for student outcomes and close the achievement gap
- Develop and deploy practical solutions to the contributors to underachievement, like chronic absence from school and summer learning loss.

What about the cost? Leading economists estimate a 7 to 16 percent return on investments in high quality early education from children low-income families. From reduced need in special education and remediation in the short term, to higher earning and reduced social costs in the long term, the benefits are certainly there.

As you can see, the discussion has started, but the question is will it continue? A great deal of work needs to be done and my focus, obviously, will be on my community, Worcester. I have stated so many times that we need prevention programs if we are to narrow the achievement gap between those children with resources and those without. I am committed to carrying out this agenda for it’s time that we stop the talking and get busy with finding a solution. Here are a few thoughts on what needs to be considered as we attempt to tackle the problem:

• More full time pre-school programs. Work with the Massachusetts Department of Education on the funding for Early Education for All. That grant could establish additional pre-school programs in our city and coordinate programs with many of our private pre-school providers.

• Continue with our books to babies program (Sponsored by the Worcester Public Schools with the assistance of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program) giving books to new mothers in the hospital. However, let’s go to the second step and have follow-up meetings with the new mothers. The question is who will do it? Could the school nurses be involved in this process as we do for Head Start students? This would be a great way of dealing with health and literacy at the same time. It makes sense!

• Get the Community involved! What can the Worcester Public Library Do? United Way? Social agencies like the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA and the YWCA, Friendly House, Black Legacy, Hispanic organizations, the churches and Rainbow Child Development? What about other private pre-school programs? Let’s involve them in the discussion.

• Reaching out to parents is a must. Who will do it? We need a Literacy campaign throughout the community for we NEED to remember that children who read succeed in school and in life. How about posters throughout the community that state: “ Have you read to your child today?” or bumper stickers that say “Read to your Child.” How about the community sponsoring workshops throughout the year for parents of children under age five?

The conversation has started so now let’s move forward and seek solutions to the problem. A community’s growth is greatly improved as its children and schools show progress. Families moving to a community always are interested in the school system. Let’s work together as a community to assist our schools in being as successful as possible and encourage the community as a whole to assist the children in becoming lifelong learners.


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