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Continuing to Move the Dime on Literacy

October 14, 2016 – Last week, Governor Snyder signed into law a new measure aimed to improve literacy by third grade. We’ve all heard it before – the critical importance of learning to read in the early grades and Michigan’s ongoing challenge with this important benchmark with 37% of kids unable to read at a basic level and 71% not reading proficiently by the end of third grade – statistics that are far worse for students of color and students facing other learning and life challenges.

Michigan’s Children played a unique and specific role in the conversation, focused primarily on how this bill might impact students whose parents also face their own challenges – whether they are related to parents’ illiteracy, language barriers, parental mental health challenges, housing instability, or work schedules that make parents literally unavailable to support their children’s reading struggles. Through our advocacy efforts, we were glad to see in the final law the following provisions included.

  1. The law includes other caregivers to help support students with “read at home plans,” which are designed to supplement school-based learning with a home-based plan. The original language of the bill did not include other caregivers, and we are glad they were included as they could be and often are critical partners in education such as afterschool providers, neighbors, church members, or other family members who could be implementing a read at home plan when a parent may be unable to.
  2. The law also requires schools to document efforts to engage parents and whether or not those efforts are successful. This as an opportunity to get a better handle on the barriers currently in place that make it challenging for schools to better partner with parents. This could include all of the issues previously laid out around parental literacy, language, ability to be home to support their children’s read at home plans, and other factors. Whatever the issues, understanding them are essential to then figure out how to address them. For example, if a significant barrier around engaging parents are parents’ own literacy challenges, then an opportunity to address that systematically would be to increase access to adult basic education.

While Michigan’s Children was ultimately supportive of the final bill due to these shifts around parental engagement, things we worked specifically on, we know that this is just one step to improve literacy, which will also require a significant resource investment. I was personally glad to see my own state legislator – Rep. Adam Zemke who worked very hard on the third grade reading bill – bring up a potential inequity in the way parents are allowed to request a good cause exemption to not retain their child who may be behind in reading. We know that parents will advocate for their children as best they can, but some families may not have the capacity or time to do so, thus the possibility for some groups of kids to more likely be held back (like kids in foster care) while others are promoted. Rep. Zemke pushed to allow other adults to be able to request exemptions for students besides their parents, an amendment that was ultimately not included but would’ve made the law stronger.

As more information is gleaned from the implementation of the third grade reading law, Michigan’s Children will be monitoring the equity impact and the barriers that schools identify with parental engagement. And we will continue to advocate for a variety of supports to ensure that literacy needs are met for children that span beyond the classroom based on these identified barriers as well as research on what works. This also means making sure that necessary interventions are adequately funded. As candidates are pounding the pavement over the next few weeks, be sure to talk to them about the importance of early literacy and what you think are critically important to move the dime – things like family literacy, high quality child care to prepare kids before they reach kindergarten, and high quality afterschool and summer programs that can reduce the literacy gap through the early grades and beyond.

– Mina Hong

Recommendations From the Source

October 6, 2016 – Earlier this week, the National Dropout Prevention Conference (NDPC) was held in Detroit with a focus on empowering students, improving educational success, and mitigating the long-term effects associated with dropping out of school. This month is also National Dropout Prevention Month, encouraging groups across sectors to raise awareness of the issue and work harder toward helping all students stay in school.

The NDPC brings to our attention that, too often, the need for dropout prevention awareness and viable solutions is underestimated. While progress in reducing school dropout rates has been made, the need for greater awareness still exists. Notably, 6.5% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the US are not enrolled in school and have not earned a diploma. These young people, on average, will be qualified for only 10% of available jobs and earn $8,000 less per year than high school graduates. Yet as many are aware, individual lived experiences are not captured in these nationally reported numbers.

To provide space for students to share their experiences, the NDPC hosted several Youth Led Sessions. Michigan’s Children assisted with coordinating these sessions, and I was honored to attend several on the afternoon of October 4. Student presenters represented several impactful organizations throughout Michigan focusing on a variety of points along students’ journeys, including: Ozone House, Fostering Success Michigan, Swartz Creek Academy, Crossroads High School, Neutral Zone, Oakland Opportunity Academy, Youth Action Michigan, Lansing Community College, The Children’s Center, Developing K.I.D.S., Metropolitan Youth Policy Fellows, and Washtenaw Technical Middle College.

The Youth Led Sessions covered a wide range of topics, from the importance of embracing technology in the classroom instead of fighting against it to actualizing the idea that students should feel cared for by their teachers. Similarly, presentations varied depending on the students leading them: there were skits, panels, ice breakers, interactive activities, internet memes, and lots of comradery. One common thread among all sessions was the prompting of self-reflection by teachers, administrators and others with influence over students’ learning experiences: What are we doing to make school a place where students want to be? After hearing what students had to say and the thoughtful discussions about their ideas for solutions, I reflect on two key takeaways:

  • Consideration of the multiple factors that go into students’ school-day experiences. Decisions to drop out – or engage in behaviors that lead to punitive responses by school officials – rarely have to do with only one factor, and the intersection of young peoples’ school, home, and community lives cannot be ignored. This highlights the importance of moving toward a trauma-informed educational system in each district and classroom. School should foster a sense of belonging and connectedness to the world students are preparing to enter, rather than serve as another stressor.
  • Raising awareness of resources that can make postsecondary education more of a possibility. In addition to making financial and compensatory resources known to students and their families — e.g., Michigan’s Fostering Futures Scholarship & Tuition Incentive Program for those who have experienced foster care – teachers’ and administrators’ awareness and willingness to engage in discussions about what is helpful to each individual student is also crucial. Students emphasized that their perception of education as a key factor in their future shifted their attitudes toward education in the present.

It was an honor to attend the Youth Led Sessions and engage in these discussions. While the NDPC and awareness campaigns through National Dropout Prevention Month have amplified these discussions to new audiences, the importance of dropout prevention work is ongoing. In Michigan, there are several things candidates can do to promote graduation. To effectively honor what was heard in the Youth Led Sessions, these issues must continue to be highlighted throughout the election season and into the next legislative session.

–  Leann Down

Leann is a former Michigan’s Children Intern, and is finishing up her dual Master’s degrees from the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Ford School of Public Policy.

It’s the Michigan We Make This Election Season

September 8, 2016 — Should anyone think that their vote doesn’t matter, please take a look at what just happened in the Michigan primaries. In the 2nd Michigan House District in Detroit, Bettie Cook Scott won her Democratic primary by 17 votes over her closest competitor in the race. That’s right. So if nine people had voted a different way, another candidate would have won. How many times have we been in conversations with more than nine people? How many times have we been able to find nine like-minded people? And, as we’ve talked about many times before, in many districts around the state, including those in the city of Detroit, the primary run determines the winner in November.

So, what do we take from that? We are in charge of the Michigan we make. We can change our state where it needs changing, we can stay the course where we need to. Seem like a leap? No way. Nine people literally made the decision about who was going to represent the 85,000 people in the 2nd district. Wow, what power! I have many more family members than that around my dinner table on a regular basis. I have many more neighbors than that gathered in the backyard on many summer evenings.

But with this power comes responsibility.

  1. We have to understand what the candidates are saying about the issues that we care about – and not just in the November run-offs, but in primaries, too. That is true from the Presidential race to local races for township positions and everywhere in between. The great thing is that the election season is the EASIEST time to hear about the issues from policymakers, and it is the easiest time for them to hear from us. Even when they don’t have a competitive general election race, they are still around, building additional support and getting the bell weather on constituent issues and concerns.
  2. We have to treat the election as the BEGINNING of the process, not the end. As we are connecting with candidates over the next two months, we need to make sure that they know that we are paying attention to what they are saying, and that we will be holding them accountable for promises they are making – those that we like, and those that we don’t.
  3. We have to make friends with decision makers. Remember what Mark Twain famously said, when you need a friend, it is too late to make one. Huh? As we all know, and as I hammer on ALL THE TIME I know, lawmakers – like the rest of us humans – are more likely to turn to people they know and trust for advice. People they have built a relationship with are more likely to be the ones they turn to when they are trying to find out more information about an issue or trying to decide how to vote on something. We know that we all do it. Nothing like a campaign season to make sure that your candidates know who you are, and see you as a resource for their later work.
  4. We have to take responsibility for outcomes in our Democracy. If we aren’t voting, we have given up our power right there. If we aren’t sharing what we know with lawmakers, we can’t expect that they will make the right decisions once elected. If we aren’t paying attention to what they are saying and doing, we are not the ones who will be holding them accountable. Are we all doing the best we can to make sure the people who represent us are well informed, well-prepared, well-supported when they do the right thing, and facing consequences when they don’t.

I feel compelled to raise these issues in election years because it’s honestly that simple – and that darn essential to our lives at home, across the state and nationally. Talk with candidates about what is going on in your own life – what are you seeing in your community, what you think they should do to help. As when you are talking to a friend, be respectful, be honest, be clear, be willing to clarify if you need to. Candidates don’t know what we know! If you want some thoughts about possible questions to ask, take a look at our election issues pieces that include some and other talking points.. You can talk with them directly, or you can talk with them publicly – through all sorts of media. They pay attention to letters to the editor in local papers, they pay attention to social media, they pay attention to people who come to opportunities to meet with them.

Thanks for joining Michigan’s Children and countless other advocates for children and families as we work through this election and beyond to make the Michigan we want and need for children, youth and families everywhere.

– Michele Corey

Michele is the Vice President for Programs at Michigan’s Children

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