In this digital age, reading, comprehending text, performing basic math and problem-solving are just some of the skills students have to master to be college and career ready.
But a 2019 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that black, Hispanic and American Indian youngsters are falling behind in some of those critical skills.
Take reading, for example. NCES reported that among American fourth graders, the average 2019 reading scores were 237 for Asian and Pacific Islander students and 230 for whites. But the scores averaged 204 for blacks and American Indian students, and 209 for Hispanics.
And studies show that if a child cannot read at a proficient level by the end of third grade, he or she is more likely to struggle and even drop out of school before earning a high school diploma.
While the NCES report paints a dim picture of the academic achievement gap in America, an Alabama nonprofit called Better Basics Inc. is working to shrink the gap for underserved students in the Birmingham metro area and beyond.
Better Basics is a charitable organization that for more than a quarter of a century has promoted literacy and provided academic enrichment services to students in the city schools in Birmingham and Fairfield, and at B.B. Comer Elementary School in Talladega County.
The organization was the brainchild of John Glasser, a retired FBI agent who, while tutoring at a Birmingham city school, saw a connection between poverty and illiteracy. So Glasser established Better Basics with the aim of helping struggling students to catch up.
“And now, 27 years later, Better Basics is made up of a lot of educators who are passionate about the mission John Glasser set forth for Better Basics,” says Better Basics Executive Director Kristi Bradford, Ed.D. “So, we’ve really evolved into an educational agency with educational leaders, and retired teachers, and passionate dedicated volunteers.”
One way that Better Basics boosts literacy is by giving away books to underserved youngsters, says Bradford.
“That’s a huge part of our mission at Better Basics,” Bradford says.
When she started the job at Better Basics four years ago, Bradford says, she was stunned to learn how many children didn’t have books in their homes, and that a lot of schools in underserved communities don’t allow children to check out books from the school library to take home.
“How are you going to practice being a good reader,” says Bradford, “or become a reader at all if you don’t even have anything in your house to read?”
“So we want to make sure that as many Birmingham children and children in impoverished areas in the metro Birmingham area, and even in Talladega County, are given as many books as we can give them,” Bradford says.
Better Basics has a number of initiatives designed to get books into children’s hands. They include the “Books for Birmingham” campaign that, through donations from local companies, resulted in Better Basics collecting more than 9,500 books for children after public schools shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Another initiative, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, lets parents with children ages birth to five sign up to have an age-appropriate book mailed to their children every month.
Better Basics also partners with the nonprofit housing organization Habitat for Humanity to give away age-appropriate books to the children of the families Habitat serves.
The books Better Basics gives away come mostly from donations from individuals as well as the business community, Bradford says.
“We’re very proud that now Better Basics programming helps children from birth all the way to 18 years of age,” says Bradford. “So we can take books for any of those ages.”
Better Basics reported giving away 49,645 new and gently used books to children and teens during the 2019-2020 school year. And with a reported budget of more than $1.73 million, it served nearly 22,000 children last year.
Besides its book giveaways, Better Basics hosts annual community-wide events.
One such activity is “Birmingham Reads,” a synchronized event where volunteers from around the metro area visit Birmingham classrooms to read to students from pre-K to 5th grade. Afterward, each child gets a copy of the book to take home.
Better Basics also hosts “Wise Words,” an event where volunteers read aloud to first graders and operate a book club that encourages youngsters to read daily.
In addition, in Fairfield, Better Basics runs the Hope 21st Century Community Learning Centers — after-school, educational enrichment programs for youngsters in the city’s elementary schools and high school.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on Better Basics’ programming this year, Bradford says.
“We’ve pivoted all of our programs and even our volunteer programs to a virtual format,” she says. “So this year, our reading mentors and our academic tutoring volunteers will all work with children virtually.”
Down to Basics
In addition to its literacy programs, Better Basics provides small-group instruction as well as one-on-one tutoring in reading and math to struggling students in inner-city schools.
Bradford says school principals are usually the ones to reach out to Better Basics for programs.
The reading and math interventions are led by veteran, state-certified teachers who travel to inner-city schools to teach small-group classes. Better Basics provides the curriculum, which Bradford says is based on the Alabama course of study.
“So whatever the state says the child must learn in reading, that’s what we use to guide our lessons for children,” Bradford says.
Geovonna Caves, a Better Basics certified intervention teacher and coordinator for the Reading Mentors, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Wise Words, says that to determine which students are most in need and would benefit from the academic intervention, Better Basics sends teams to schools to conduct reading assessments on about 16 students that the classroom teachers identify.
Based on the students’ scores on the assessment tests, Better Basics assigns 12 children to small-group classes with a Better Basics intervention teacher, Caves says. Two other students are assigned to work with a volunteer reading mentor.
Caves says that intervention teachers normally find that by the time struggling students get to the second grade, they are already far behind their classmates academically.
“It’s hard to keep up when the teacher is reading a story that has all of these second-grade words, but I only know the words from kindergarten,” Caves says. “My classmates are reading chapter books, and I’m struggling reading a picture book.”
She said, “The lessons that we have usually focus on vocabulary words, spending some time talking about those words that they may or may not be familiar with, giving them the definitions and using those words in sentences to increase their personal vocabulary.
“We also spend time looking through books, looking at the pictures, allowing the students to ask questions about anything that stands out to them or anything that they may be unfamiliar with,” Caves says.
Better Basics recently added a mathematics intervention program with the help of grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Goodrich Foundation, Bradford says. Starting this fall, Better Basics began offering math programming for kindergarten through fourth grade.
Math intervention teacher Diane Wehby, who wrote the math curriculum, says she works with students on target skills such as multiplication.
“So one of the things that I did last year with these kids was to first give them a foundation of what multiplication is,” Wehby says. “We worked on just understanding what it is that you’re doing. Then we worked on memorization. With me working with four at a time, we can go over and over it and get these concepts over to them.
“The majority of them by March knew their multiplication facts and understood what they were doing and could do word problems.”
For the Better Basics services, schools are asked to pay about 40 percent of the cost to bring the program to a school, Bradford says.
“Sometimes we get grants that cover the cost of the fee we ask schools to pay,” says Bradford.
One of the schools the program services is Robinson Elementary School in Birmingham, located in the working-class neighborhood of South East Lake.
Some 346 students, pre-K through grade five, attend school at Robinson, says principal Marcia Henderson. It is predominantly African American, although the school has Hispanic and white students as well.
At Robinson, prior to the pandemic, Better Basics teachers provided instruction to several first- and second-graders once a week in two classrooms set aside just for them to work, she says.
But this year, teachers have to meet with students via Zoom, Henderson says.
“Typically, the students who they are working with, we do see growth with those students,” says Henderson, “Not just with the reading, but the math as well.”
“Anytime they have an opportunity to be engaged in reading in that capacity, there’s improvement,” says Henderson. “It gives them the opportunity to be exposed to what good reading looks like, what it sounds like, the sounds I’m supposed to put together, the sounds I’m supposed to segment. It’s always beneficial.”
Inequities in Education
Social scientists have long touted the link between social ills such as poverty and the legacy of racism and discrimination, and the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged youths.
In fact, the NCES report says, “In 2019, the average reading score for fourth-grade students in high-poverty schools (206) was lower than the scores for fourth-grade students in mid-high poverty schools (217), mid-low poverty schools (227), and low-poverty schools (240).”
Caves says disparities in reading skills can be due to a lack of regular access to books outside of school or the foundational skills needed to read such as phonemic awareness.
“These are all things most children get in pre-K and kindergarten,” says Caves. “But if my mom can’t send me to school for pre-K or kindergarten, when I get to first grade, I’m lost.”
Disparities in education in the United States are nothing new.
Prior to the Civil War, in the 1830s, many slave-holding states passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read. Alabama’s Slave Code of 1833, for example, imposed a fine of between $250 and $500 for anyone attempting to teach a free person of color or slave to spell, read or write.
The idea was to keep tight control over slaves’ ability to communicate, learn about the abolitionist movement, or escape by forging passes stating they had permission to be off their master’s plantation.
After the Civil War, blacks were largely barred from attending schools with white children. Then, in 1896, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, helped solidify the practice when it ruled that separate but equal facilities for Blacks and whites was not in violation of the 14th Amendment.
In nearly all cases, Blacks did not have schools equal in quality to those of whites. Instead, their schools often had far fewer – and in most cases inferior – resources.
Nearly 60 years after Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed course and ruled in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate-but-equal school facilities did violate 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.
But despite Brown v. Board of Education, it was not long before white flight to the suburbs occurred, resulting in the resegregation of public schools. Black and brown children in the inner cities were left to attend what were often poor, underfunded public schools.
Besides poorly funded schools, Jennifer Summerlin, Ph.D., assistant professor at the UAB School of Education and director of the school’s graduate reading specialist master’s and Ed.S. programs, says problems such as transiency among homeless children, who often are forced to bounce to multiple schools in a single academic year, and the lack of adequate state-funded pre-K have a direct impact on students’ success.
Another issue, says Summerlin, is summer learning loss among children in underserved communities.
“The research shows that children in high-achieving schools versus low-achieving make the same gains during the year,” says Summerlin. “The difference is the summer.”
She says children at high-achieving schools tend to have “high-quality experiences.” Those experiences can include activities such as visits to museums and libraries; culturally enriching summer excursions; and even conversations between parents and children about items on the shelf while grocery shopping.
“The more experiences the child has, the more able they are to understand and apply that to the reading,” she says.
That is because background knowledge is critical for literacy, Summerlin says.
“One of the issues nationally is that we’ve had an emphasis on reading the words accurately, which is important,” says Summerlin, “but if there’s not meaning attached to it, then you have readers in third, fourth, fifth grade where the teacher says, ‘They can read all the words, but they don’t know what it’s talking about.’”
In fact, research published in 2012 in the journal Developmental Science by Stanford University psychology Professor Anne Fernald, Ph.D., looked at the gap in vocabulary and language processing between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
The study’s abstract says: “The most important findings were that significant disparities in vocabulary and language processing efficiency were already evident at 18 months between infants from higher? and lower?socio-economic status (SES) families, and by 24 months there was a six?month gap between SES groups in processing skills critical to language development.”
Before the pandemic, retired healthcare worker Marilyn Henry of Homewood and her husband, Jim, spent Tuesday mornings at Washington Elementary School in Birmingham as volunteer Better Basics reading mentors.
Better Basics reading mentors work with children in grades pre-K through fourth grade one-on-one, once a week for about 20 weeks, to help them improve their reading and comprehension, Bradford says.
Henry says she and her husband began volunteering with Better Basics through their church, which has an ongoing relationship with the organization.
“We wanted to give back to the community in a way that would leave a mark and make it a better place,” she says.
At each session, mentors assist children as they practice reading and review what are known as sight words – words that appear frequently in texts that their teachers want students to know on sight.
At the end of a session, Henry says, she gives her mentee a book to take home, making sure the book was based on the child’s reading level and interest.
“You get to know that student and what their interests are and have an idea of whether they are improving or not,” Henry says.
Henry says that last year, she mentored a fourth-grade Hispanic boy who she described as being always eager to learn to read.
“It had been instilled in him at home that if you want to be lawyer, a doctor or whatever, you want to be, you have to know how to read, and he would say that,” she says.
“Hopefully, you feel like you’ve made a difference in the life of a child that’s not just a one-time, one and done, but that it impacts their abilities as they go forward,” says Henry, “because if they can’t read, they aren’t going to be able to do much of anything.”