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At Literacy Town Hall, School Leaders Urge Parents to ‘Read to Children’

Mark Sullivan, Ed.D, Superintendent, Birmingham City Schools, during Literacy Town Hall meeting at the Boutwell Auditorium. (Livestream Screengrab)

Three years after the passage of a state law requiring that third grade students read on grade level or risk being held back, local leaders held a town hall Tuesday to tout literacy improvements in early education for Birmingham City Schools (BCS) students and urged parents and others to get involved.

Compared to last school year, 8 percent more second graders and 10 percent more third graders are reading at grade level, according to data presented by BCS Chief Academic and Accountability Officer Jermaine Dawson. Those increases mean 59 percent of second graders and 57 percent of third graders are reading on grade level.

To continue improving reading proficiency among Birmingham students, BCS Superintendent Mark Sullivan, Ed.D., urged parents to either listen to their children read for at least 15 minutes a day or to read to them for the same amount of time. Science, Sullivan said, backs up this approach.

“There is an enormous amount of research out there about the vocabulary of different types of students, and there’s a huge correlation between the number of words a child is exposed to and their academic performance, and that is that is tied directly to how much exposure they have to literature. Read, read, read,” Sullivan said.

When Sullivan spent time as a school principal before becoming superintendent, he met many parents who had never heard their child read, he said. In addition to reading, he urged parents to encourage their children to speak.

“You hear parents talk to children, and they want them to be quiet, and that is like the worst thing that you can do. Allow children to talk, express themselves, build a vocabulary. They may be a little bit mouthy at the beginning, but they will be so much more intelligent, so much smarter because they will have a large vocabulary,” Sullivan said.

The Alabama Literacy Act, which was made law in 2019 but goes into effect in 2023, “frightens” Mayor Randall Woodfin because, he said, “I believe that if one child fails, that’s one too many.”

The responsibility for ensuring BCS students are up to grade level falls on more than teachers, families and the school system, Woodfin said.

“As mayor, as city council, as school board, as educators, as state-based leaders and nonprofits and the philanthropic and business and corporate community and every citizen in the city that is an adult, we should all lean in on this to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure no children have to repeat the third grade,” the mayor said.

In March, the city and BCS partnered to launch Page Pals, a program which provides volunteer readers to Birmingham students and provides incentives to students who read.

For more information on the Page Pals program, visit https://www.bhamyouthfirst.org/page-pals/.