Lawmakers Voice Support for Grade-Level Reading at AR-GLR Legislative Breakfast

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Following the breakfast, Reps. Vivian Flowers and Jack Fortner read to pre-K students in the Captiol Building. Reps. Andy Mayberry and Laurie Rushing also read to kids.

Arkansas lawmakers, education officials, parents and other community leaders on Feb. 22 gathered at the Capitol for Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s 2017 Legislative Breakfast. More than 20 state senators and representatives were present at the event, where attendees had the opportunity to share why they support early-learning initiatives.

Several speakers at the breakfast discussed the importance of boosting academic performance in Arkansas by increasing funding for quality pre-K, providing funding for afterschool and summer programs, and ensuring that teachers have the tools they need to teach children to read.

Jerry Adams, the president and CEO of the Arkansas Research Alliance, took the floor to explain why Arkansas should continue investing in pre-K programs. Nearly a third of Arkansas third-graders are not currently reading on grade level. But an increase in funding for pre-K could change that, he said.

Laveta Wills-Hale, network coordinator for the Arkansas Out of School Network, told the audience that parents of students who have participated in summer and after-school programs have witnessed a difference in their children. “And more importantly, the teachers of those children – 86 percent of them – say that when those children return to the classroom in the fall, they are better prepared. We have evidence to say that quality summer and after-school programs can close the achievement gap,” Wills-Hale said. “We’re not whistling in the dark here. This is not just happy talk – this is about a readiness agenda for our state.”

Stacy Smith, the director of curriculum and instruction at the Arkansas Department of Education, discussed R.I.S.E. Arkansas, an initiative co-sponsored by AR-GLR that encourages a culture of reading in homes, schools, and communities. Smith also discussed the state’s need to align teaching standards and make sure that educators have the foundational skills they need to help students read.

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Senator Joyce Elliott addresses the 2017 Legislative Breakfast audience.

“The Arkansas Department of Education is committed to providing quality professional development to our teachers,” Smith said. She also emphasized that her department is dedicated to collaborating with education partners, like AR-GLR, and building partnerships with business leaders and others in the community.

Two Arkansas senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Alan Clark (R) and Joyce Elliott (D) – who each have early-education bills making their way through the legislature – also spoke passionately about the necessity of working together to boost grade-level reading. “Passionate folks usually get things done,” Clark said.

AR-GLR’s top three policy priorities include: (1) increased funding for current Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K programs, which have been proven to close the achievement gap for children from low-income families; (2) funding for school and community partnerships to create after-school and summer programs, as laid out in the Positive Youth Development Act; and (3) ensuring that elementary school teachers have evidence-based tools for teaching reading (many educators in Arkansas currently do not feel prepared to teach children to read).

Rich Huddleston, the executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), recognized and thanked all of the elected officials who took the time to attend the Legislative Breakfast. “If there is anything that unites the legislature, it’s education,” he said. The legislators who attended include Representatives Ron McNair, Jack Fortner, Scott Baltz, Dwight Tosh, Bruce Cozart, Mathew Pitsch, Mickey Gates, Charlotte Douglas, Chris Richey, Monte Hodges, Danny Watson, George McGill, Bruce Coleman, Marcus Richmond, and Senators Alan Clark, Bruce Maloch, Eddie Cheatham, Joyce Elliott, and Larry Teague.

To watch videos of the event, visit AACF’s Facebook page.