April 17, 2014 10:40:27 AM
Each year, the Mississippi Legislature produces a handful of education bills. Once in a great while, the group actually includes a good idea.
One of those rare instances, advocated by Gov. Phil Bryant, was signed into law in 2013 and will go into effect during the 2014-15 school year.
It's called "Third Grade Gate," which requires all third-grade students to be able to read at the third-grade level before promotion to fourth grade.
The law makes a handful of exceptions, most notably for special-needs students and students who have been given special reading instruction for two years but may not yet have reached the required standard.
After some haggling (the original bill, like so much of what the Legislature passes, did not provide funding to support the measure) schools turned their attention to implementing the program.
Last week, the Lowndes County School District approved the hiring of seven reading "interventionists," a move many districts are following and all should emulate. These teachers will be assigned a school and it will be their job to identify those students who are in jeopardy and work with them one-on-one to bring them up to grade-level.
For years now, critics of our public school system have loudly lamented the concept of "social promotion," which allows students to advance from grade to grade even if they have not mastered grade-level work. Third-grade gate does not end this practice, of course, but it does represent a major step in that direction.
Studies show that students who cannot read at grade level by third grade are likely to fall so far behind that catching up is virtually impossible.
You could make the argument that the same standard be applied to all fields of study: A third-grader should be able to do third-grade math before going to fourth grade, for example. Reading is the best place to start. The ability to read and comprehend is the fundamental tool of all learning because it not only develops language skills, it helps the child interpret the material he encounters, even math and science. A student who cannot read is unlikely to succeed in any other field of study.
These efforts not only help the child in school, but give the child real hope for a successful life. A child that falls behind in school at so early an age rarely catches up without such intervention. Mississippi's dropout rates, among the nation's highest, certainly affirm this.
Reducing the dropout rate not only provides a more promising future for the child, it also strengthens our community. Seventy-five percent of all crimes in the U.S. are committed by dropouts. It's easy to see that all of us are affected when a child who has fallen hopelessly behind, becomes discouraged and gives up on school. It is painful to think that the course of a life is determined at so early an age, but every reputable study confirms this.
We do not know if the resources provided to address this problem are sufficient. It would not be at all unusual for our lawmakers to insist on full success by providing half-measures.
Since that possibility exists, we encourage those who can to volunteer at our schools. You need not have a teaching degree to help. Contact your local school district. They will be happy to hear from you.
The stakes are obvious. Unless someone intervenes, today's struggling 9-year-old may become tomorrow's criminal.
That is something we simply cannot afford.
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