In Baker County, Adults Circle Around Literacy
The residents of Baker County are on a mission to help their children read, lead, and succeed.
Since the summer of 2014, family, school, and community members in this rural southwest Georgia county have been finding new ways to collaborate around the shared goal of increasing literacy and comprehension for all children, including a focus on the early grades.
These collaborations have led to a countywide campaign focused on reading with “Read. Lead. Succeed” banners hanging up in businesses and other venues across the county and a community bonfire in January intended to light a fire among community members about the importance of literacy.
While this collaboration is still in its early stages, it is already bringing new partners to the table with a focus on reading and data. It has also resulted in the successful passage of an Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) to support improvements at the school.
This community collaboration and renewed commitment to reading grew out of a community dialogue process, called C.A.F.E. (Circle of Adults Focusing on Education). With facilitation support provided by the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) Division for Special Education Services and Supports, area residents came together for their first C.A.F.E. in 2014 to look at data on the nearly 400 students in the county’s one K-12 school.
After agreeing that the 2013 high-school graduation rate of 42 percent was unacceptably low, these residents analyzed data to determine what was causing children to drop out of school. Through this analysis, a lack of third-grade reading proficiency emerged as a root cause of the low graduation rates.
At that time, third grade reading scores on the CRCT (the state standardized test used before the 2014-2015 school year) were fairly high with 78 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards. But when the group examined the monthly Star Reading scores, they found that many students were struggling with fluency and comprehension. That realization was later reinforced by the Georgia Milestones scores in the fall of 2015. With the higher bar set by the Milestones standards, only 19.4 percent of third graders scored at or above proficient in reading.
Through facilitated conversations, the group agreed to focus on helping children become strong readers. “I have never been in a C.A.F.E. where the parents are so engaged and keep coming back,” says Patti Solomon, the GaDOE consultant who has been facilitating the C.A.F.E. process in Baker County. “When they saw those numbers, they got very determined and said they were going to figure out how to move forward. They really were empowered by seeing and understanding the data.”
Having a parent mentor in the group contributed to the high level of buy-in. Parent mentors are parents of children with disabilities who work for the school districts in the role of liaison between families and the school. Tracy Barber, the parent mentor in Baker County, is effective in engaging parents in the community process.
As parents became more engaged in the effort, they began to sign up to volunteer to help students with reading. In the previous year, there had been no parent volunteers at the school. But this year, after launching the Reading Buddies program, more than 10 parents are coming in to read one-on-one with students. The county sheriff, who is also a C.A.F.E. participant, agreed to waive the background-check fee for school volunteers, reducing the cost to the schools for accessing this increased support.
The C.A.F.E. process promotes a level playing field, where everyone is called by their first names and everyone is given time to share their reactions to data and ideas without interruption. This dialogue process can continue for hours, but with good facilitation and charted note-taking, the group quickly begins to see the areas of agreement and the opportunities for collaboration. This level playing field was critical in a county where 11 percent of adults have a college degree and nearly one-third of residents are living in poverty.
With an average of 24 students in each grade, they realized that they could significantly improve their overall scores by identifying and better supporting the students who were at greatest risk of not staying on track, including students in the special education program, students with learning or behavior needs, and students with a health-related disability.
They also realized the importance of working with younger students and expanded their focus from children in third through eighth grades to students in kindergarten through eighth grades, providing an array of supports for students in K-3 to help these young students achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
School leaders reached out to churches across the county, asking if they could speak to their congregations about the community-wide undertaking. Many of those churches became vital partners in the effort. Last summer, many churches began hosting weekly reading activities and organized a contest to see who could read the most books over the summer. One church purchased 300 headsets for emerging readers to use to read on tablets.
Using Title 1 funds, the schools purchased a set of eight age-appropriate books for each child in grades K-8. As the children read the books, their teachers incorporate discussions about them into their lesson plans. In addition, classrooms are organizing reading competitions, and community members are donating prizes for the winners.
The school’s bonfire in January brought in storytellers from Swamp Gravy, a folk life theater group based in Colquitt County. The performers encouraged students to participate in the school’s “Tell Your Story” contest. Winners of the contest will receive free tickets to an upcoming Swamp Gravy theater performance. The event raised nearly $200 that will be used to support the efforts of the community-wide literacy campaign.
“People are talking about the reading campaign all the time,” Solomon says. “They have signs up all over the school, and that is really getting the kids and their parents excited.”
The work in Baker County is part of a statewide strategy to focus on increasing high-school graduation rates. The Division of Special Education Services and Supports has been implementing the C.A.F.E. process in middle and high schools for seven years, but the work with Baker County represents the first time it has applied the model to an entire district. “We started in a small district with a number of challenges that are community-based and not necessarily school-based,” Solomon says. “We have found that the model was tremendously successful when applied district-wide. It allowed them to use data to identify a core issue behind why kids aren’t graduating.”
This is an innovative way to address the adaptive challenges we face when trying to increase educational outcomes for Georgia students,” says Anne Ladd, the family engagement specialist for the Division for Special Education. Ladd oversees the Georgia Parent Mentor Partnership at GaDOE.
Building on the success in Baker County, the division is now introducing the C.A.F.E. process in two additional rural school districts in southwest Georgia – Decatur County and Grady County.
Learn more about this and many other family engagement resources from GaDOE.