In 1993, in its education report card, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce named literacy as a significant issue plaguing Metro Public Schools. 26 years later, this warning has snowballed into what can only be called a public crisis. In the year 2019, seven out of ten third-graders in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) cannot read at grade level – approximately 4,500 children in total.
According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than a proficient reader. As these students struggle to keep up with their peers academically, through fourth grade and beyond, the process of dropping out begins – a fate that research connects to higher rates of incarceration, along with other social repercussions. In Nashville, the lack of a high school diploma also carries startling economic implications. According to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Vital Signs report, a local resident with no high school diploma will earn $23,389 on average – about $1,800 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.
But ultimately, no child’s future can be predicted with certainty, and Nashvillians should strive to set all children on a path to success in their earliest days. In some ways, the overall health of a community depends upon it. The Blueprint for Early Childhood Success tells us that “every child without a high school diploma costs society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity [per year] – a number that will increase dramatically as low-skills jobs continue to disappear and demand for skilled work increases.”
Nashville’s struggle to turn its youngest residents into skilled, lifelong readers has been publicly acknowledged by city leadership, and has inspired a rise in both enthusiasm for and resources dedicated to fighting the early literacy crisis. In fact, a concrete goal was articulated as part of the city-wide Blueprint for Early Childhood Success initiative: to double the number of third-grade students reading on grade level by 2025. But with only 3 out of 10 Nashville third-graders achieving proficiency in English Language Arts in 2019, it is clear we are not moving the needle quickly enough.
To spotlight our city’s literacy crisis, the Scarlett Family Foundation recently released an interactive data tool focused specifically on third grade literacy rates in Nashville. We recognize that the proficiency numbers listed on this data map do not exist in a vacuum; there is context to every school community, involving factors such as poverty, proximity to resources, percentage of non-native English speakers, and so on. But if we allow these numbers to serve as starting points for discussion, they may have the power to inspire community-wide action that leads to real, tangible improvement for Nashville’s students.
Takeaways from the Third Grade Literacy Data Tool
As previously mentioned, the last few years of available testing data reveal that the percentage of Nashville third graders reading on grade level has barely moved from year to year— both districtwide and for key student subgroups. Only 15% of economically disadvantaged students and 20% of Black/Latino/Native American students are reading on grade level.
The data indicate some variance across school type, with 30.1% of students at public charter schools testing ON track compared to 25.6% at traditional MNPS schools. In Metro Nashville’s magnet schools, significantly more students (43%) are on track in English Language Arts.
But this discrepancy pales in comparison to that seen amongst the various geographic regions of Nashville. Literacy rates are at their lowest in the Pearl Cohn cluster, where only 13% of students on track, followed closely by the Hunters Lane cluster (15%). Comparatively, the Hillsboro (59%), Hillwood (34%) and Overton (37.5%) clusters see significantly higher rates of third-grade reading proficiency, though still far from acceptable. This correlation between literacy rates and geographic location points to a glaring inequity in our city – no child’s academic future should be dictated solely by the neighborhood in which they live.
Some notable improvements in third grade literacy are found across clusters, with two elementary schools standing out as bright spots for growth over the past three years— Napier Elementary and Crieve Hall Elementary.
Napier Elementary, in the Glencliff Cluster, moved from N/A (meaning less than 5% of students tested on track) in 2017 and 2018, to 17% students testing on track in 2019. Crieve Hall, serving students in the Overton Cluster, saw approximately 40% of students on track in both 2017 and 2018. That number increased significantly in 2019, with 67% of students measuring at the on-track level.
Explore the state of third grade literacy in your neighborhood by visiting our Data Tool here.
We have the data that proves the problem. How do we move closer to a solution?
As a city, we’ve articulated a bold, worthy goal: to double the number of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. But with growth stagnant, what are we as Nashvillians prepared to do to see real improvement?
Start Early, and Empower Parents
A child’s relationship with reading should begin in their earliest days – making the home, the childcare center, or the preschool a perfect place to introduce young children to words, books, and texts of all kinds.
Nashville Public Library (NPL) stands as a hub for reading-readiness resources and programming. NPL’s Bring Books to Life is a free early literacy outreach program that operates in over 150 preschools, pre-k programs, and child care centers across Nashville. The Library equips teachers with the strategies and tools that will allow them to bring age-appropriate literacy practices into the classroom and provide workshops for parents and caregivers that will help create a culture of reading at home.
Almost 1,000 children are registered for the Library’s Read to Rise program, which helps parents get intentional about story-time with the goal of building a habit of daily reading in the home. Additionally, the Ready Rosie application provides quick videos demonstrating how parents or caregivers can incorporate literacy, math and social emotional learning practices into their family’s daily life. With these tools, parents can become better teachers of and future advocates for their young readers.
Not a parent of young children? Volunteer or donate books.
Consider volunteering time or resources to students in need. Through local organizations like PENCIL and Book’em, volunteers can be connected to MNPS students who have been identified as requiring reading intervention. Book’em also welcomes community members to host book drives, an important part of making sure all Nashville students have access to books. An up-to-date listing of open volunteer opportunities across the city can be found through Hands On Nashville.
Raise Your Voice
It’s important to recognize that YOU have the power to make profound change in the lives of MNPS students; and in order for third grade literacy rates to improve at a transformational level, we must all come together to see this issue as a city-wide priority. If the data presented in the Third Grade Literacy Data Tool is shocking to you, tell your elected officials. Make your voice heard by contacting your school board member, your Council Member, and the Mayor’s Office. Let our city’s leaders know that early childhood literacy must remain at the top of Nashville’s priority list if we are ever to truly live up to our “It City” title, and ask them what they plan to do to bring all students up to grade-level reading proficiency.
If we as a community truly believe that literacy is fundamental to our city’s health, we must raise a collective voice and demand more for the children at risk of being left behind.Read More
Through the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee (BBBS), local children in need of guidance and support are provided with strong and enduring one-on-one mentoring relationships. One of BBBS’ school-based programs, the High School Bigs Literacy Program, gives at-risk elementary students the opportunity to be mentored by an exceptional high school student while also working on critical literacy skills.
The Scarlett Family Foundation has supported this innovative mentoring program since 2014. Rebecca Ackerman, Vice President of Programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, oversees the organization’s many mentoring programs. In this Q&A, we talk to Rebecca about how the program works, and why it has such a unique impact on its participants.
Why did Big Brothers Big Sisters start a literacy program?
One of the impacts we see of mentoring programs in general is increasing academic motivation. But we also see big disparities in academic preparation and achievement among elementary students. That time students are spending with their mentors could be leveraged to increase the number of hours of literacy support a child receives in the course of their school year.
So, we found the mentoring relationship is a great time to not only build connection and academic motivation, but build a foundation for academic achievement.
Where and how does the program operate?
The High School Bigs program matches high school students to elementary students within Rutherford County Schools. The Bigs spend about one hour a week with the student for one school year. The hope is for a healthy, long-term relationship because we know the best outcomes happen in relationships that are a year or longer.
Bigs make time to meet with their matches during the school day, and many give up their free periods to mentor. One high school starts an hour later than elementary schools, so those Bigs get up an hour early to meet with their Littles before their own school day even begins.
All of our high school students go through a rigorous application process and interview. We are looking for students who have a level of maturity, commitment and resilience. They are required to participate in a structured, formal training and connect with a coach on a weekly basis for the first year of their mentoring.
What kinds of things do the Bigs and Littles do together and how do these activities improve literacy?
Each match spends time reading together— the Little has the opportunity to read to their mentor or the mentor to the Little. We also provide literacy based-activities and games for the Bigs to do with the Littles.
Student voice is so critical in the learning experience. So conversation is a really important component of literacy building. Children don’t generally have a lot of time during the school day to engage in in-depth, one-on-one conversations. But having an hour for intentional conversation with their Big to read and discuss what was read increases their vocabulary and literacy comprehension.
How does having older students involved in the program make a difference for the younger students?
These matches are one of the sweetest things to observe. Often, the kids referred to us are struggling academically or socially. Because our Bigs are not an adult, they are safer to take risks with and the Littles have less fear. It is relationship-based learning.
Specifically, we often hear that the Littles feel important to their mentors, which is something that’s pretty remarkable when you think about the mentor relationship. Very often it makes sense where the mentor feels important— but this is one relationship in the Littles’ lives where by virtue of the fact that the high school student is showing up every week and giving them undivided attention, it communicates importance.
How does the program benefit the Bigs, too?
This is as much a resilience-builder for the high school student as it is for the Little. Empathy is a skill that is built through this process— and perseverance. It allows high school students to step out of themselves and to gain a different perspective from another person.
It helps them reflect on their own learning and how they’ve built skills and how they have grown as learners and as people. That process of relating to a young person who is struggling with a skill they have mastered is really grounding.
It helps them build the soft skills that are so necessary in the workforce. As they get ready to head off into college or career, for them to have this perspective that is broader than their own is really critical.
One of the only programs of its kind with an emphasis on literacy, the High School Bigs Literacy Program provides Littles with 30 additional hours of literacy programming over the course of the year.
In the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success, a citywide framework to improve Nashville’s literacy rates, the words “parent,” “family(ies),” and “generation” are mentioned more than 300 times. The Blueprint’s research and recommendations indicate that parental engagement is critical for childhood success. However, such support is practically impossible for parents who can’t read or who lack English-speaking skills.
The Nashville Public Library estimates that 250,000 Nashvillians need adult education support, like basic literacy, high school equivalency, and English. As a city, we are serving just one percent. Adult literacy rates impact every part of Nashville: employment and poverty levels, healthcare costs, K-12 school performance, and general dependence on systems for support.
The Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC)’s vision is for all Nashville adults to attain the literacy skills they need to navigate life and support their children. NALC learners become more independent and confident through improved health, financial security, and family and community engagement.
NALC’s mission is to teach reading, writing, and English-speaking skills to Nashville adults. Since 2008, the Foundation has supported the Start Now tutoring program at the Antioch branch. Their services provide learners with a safe place to learn and grow, primarily through one-on-one tutoring, supported by a network of dedicated volunteers. The nonprofit efficiently coordinates with partners and ensures students find the best options for their goals so they can feel the difference in their day-to-day lives.
Whether it’s working toward a new job, earning a degree, or helping a child with homework, NALC values and prioritizes each individual’s learning needs. In short, NALC teaches children how to read by teaching parents how to read.Read More
Almost 19 percent of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ student population qualifies as English Language Learners (ELLs). This means MNPS alone serves one-third of the states’ students who are learning English. With the right support, and intensive focus on their unique needs, these newcomer students can not only integrate socially— but also succeed in school and life.
So in 2016, the Foundation helped launch the Nashville Newcomers Academy (NNA), an innovative, first-of-its-kind partnership between MNPS and public charter school STEM Prep Academy to serve our newest young Americans with the most urgent needs.
Funding specifically supported placing additional highly-trained teachers in classrooms at the school to provide direct, intensive language instruction and co-facilitate the school’s inquiry-based college preparatory curriculum within general education classes. Through focused delivery of instruction and services, NNA is advancing immigrant and refugee students’ social-emotional well-being while promoting stability and empowerment within a small, safe classroom environment. Nearly 100 percent of NNA students have experienced interrupted formal education, and in some cases, no formal education. To support social integration and preserve important cultural identities, students participate in daily advisories with diverse peers, trauma-informed group and individual sessions with the school’s counseling team, and are paired with an older peer to help them thrive socially as well as academically.
To be eligible to attend the Nashville Newcomer Academy, students must have lived in the United States for less than one year and scored the lowest possible level on the state’s English language assessment given to all students with non-English language backgrounds. The program annually serves over 100 students in grades 5-9. NNA students represent over 20 different native countries from around the globe.
To date, in reading these students have grown four grade levels in one school year, beginning with no alphabet recognition to reading at a high third grade level. NNA students’ attendance averages 95%.
The Academy also advances achievement of this population district-wide through a demonstration school model and provides professional development for educators at other schools serving high concentrations of newcomer students.Read More
There are a lot of exciting things about Nashville today. The construction cranes and new hotels, office buildings and apartments dotting our skyline offer a real time, visual reminder of our progress.
But all this success is masking a massive, fundamental problem. For over two decades, the third grade reading scores of students in Metro Nashville have remained abysmally low. Three out of four Nashville students do not meet basic grade level reading standards by the end of third grade.
This reality, if left unchanged, spells a slow-moving disaster for our students, our workforce and our city.
Third Grade Reading Matters — A Lot
Third grade reading performance is one of the most important early benchmarks we have for predicting a student’s long-term academic and career success. Students must first ‘learn to read’ in order to ‘read to learn’ everything else in life— which makes third grade a watershed year for literacy.
Research shows the majority of children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are likely to never catch up. They then face a cascading number of additional challenges that follow them through life –higher incidences of school discipline issues, crime and incarceration.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one in six students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade will not earn a high school diploma. Every child without a high school diploma costs society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity — a number that will increase dramatically as low-skills jobs continue to disappear and demand for skilled work increases.
Today, adults without a high school degree earn only half as much annually as their peers who graduated. As more of our jobs require a skill or credential beyond high school, those who do not have a high school education will only fall further behind.
The Need in Nashville is Now
Nashville Metro Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph prioritized the issue early in his administration and helped give way to an unprecedented coming together of community partners to develop the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success – a citywide framework for helping us make significant gains on an accelerated path. That plan recently won Nashville certification as a Campaign for Grade Level Reading Community.
The plan is a great first step, but our city is at a pivotally important juncture. The hard work really starts with implementation. As Ron Fairchild from the Campaign shared with key Nashville education groups at our first NED event, their work provides insights for Nashville on what it will take to help more students read on grade-level.
It is time to mobilize a community-wide effort, activating business, non-profit and government stakeholders around early literacy. These efforts look to make connections between support programs and engage across issues like housing, health care, and parent engagement.
This work cannot start in third grade, and it is not limited to only what happens inside the classroom. Literacy feeds off other factors like chronic absenteeism and the quality of learning before kindergarten. Closing the literacy gaps for at-risk populations means finding ways to introduce more book-rich environments and improve attendance.
Finally— and critically— our success requires a long-term commitment to stay engaged and focus on the challenge despite the temptation to become cynical or complacent.
The Call for Action
Other communities are making progress on this important issue— and we know Nashville can, too. Here are three ways to help right now:
Get involved at a local school. Whether it’s reading to kids or supporting other community efforts, people power is important. Local organizations like PENCIL4SCHOOLS connect volunteers to opportunities in schools.
Speak out. Hold our elected officials and school leaders accountable. We must remain vocal to ensure this issue stays a top priority for city leaders and all of our community. Members of the business community are also uniquely positioned to make an impact as we have an obvious interest in a healthy, educated, and competitive local workforce.
Support the Blueprint incubator. We won’t be able to reach our goal without a true public/private partnerships. The communities who have accomplished bold ambitious plans, and worked together. Find out more at https://blueprintnashville.org/
We believe in Nashville, and if we work together, we can get there.
About the Speakers
Ron’s role with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is to serve as the director of the GLR Support Center, which functions as a hub for peer exchange, a broker of tools and technical assistance, and an accelerator of the scope and pace of change in the more than 360 communities in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Canada currently involved in the Campaign. Ron fulfills this role while also serving as President and CEO of the Smarter Learning Group, a national consulting rm focused on helping education-related organizations achieve better results, build stronger partnerships, and attract more investment. Prior to launching the rm in 2011, Ron served as the founding CEO of the National Summer Learning Association and the executive director of its predecessor organization, the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University from 2002 to 2010.
The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a nationwide, collaborative effort that works to ensure more low-income children can succeed in school and life by focusing on this key indicator— grade-level reading by the end of third grade. The Campaign helps cities and leaders mobilize community-wide solutions to promote quality teaching and school readiness, improve attendance and summer learning, and engage parents.
Dr. Shawn Joseph
Dr. Shawn Joseph is the current Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools. He is an experienced educator who had fought for excellence and equity for every student he has served in his more than 20-year career. Dr. Joseph has served as a teacher, principal, district administrator, deputy superintendent and superintendent. His work has garnered national recognition, and his expertise has been sought by other districts during transitional periods.Read More