In Atlanta, children born in the city's lowest-income communities hear 30 million fewer words compared to their more affluent peers by the time they enter kindergarten. What's more, according to findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study and the International Reading Study, 61% of low-income families have no children's books at all in their homes, and 80% of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income populations have no age-appropriate books.
"The first step in any educational process for young students is the act of reading and writing," said Rachel Sprecher, Executive Director of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Office of Partnerships and Development. "It's the critical foundation of all learning; without it, our students have no chance for thriving in school, college, career or in life."
Unfortunately, the majority of children who start behind stay behind, leading to an increase in our nation's dropout rate among low-income and minority students. According to the American Educational Research Association, students who can't read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school with no diploma.
When third-grade reading proficiency reached just 40% in the 2014-2015 school year for APS, it was a sign that action needed to take place. The first step to increasing literacy rates was to close the equity gap among schools and students. APS partnered with the Atlanta football community to make a meaningful investment in the district's educators. In 2016, The Atlanta Football Host Committee, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and the College Football Playoff Foundation funded a $2 million grant to equip Atlanta Public School teachers with skills to deliver effective literacy instruction to students.
"At the Chick-fil-A Foundation, we believe in the power of learning," said Rodney Bullard, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Chick-fil-A, Inc. and executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation. "We know that when children are given the right tools at a young age, they can build better, brighter futures. The work the APS has done through this literacy program will change lives and communities, right here in Chick-fil-A's hometown. It's been our pleasure to play a small part."
Beginning in the summer of 2016, 500 APS kindergarten and first-grade teachers were trained in the "Orton-Gillingham" (O-G) approach to literacy. APS educators have continued this training every summer. The O-G approach is an intensive, sequential phonics-based system focusing on teaching kids to read at the word level, make connections between sounds and letters, and develop their vocabulary. Students must master one reading skill before moving on to the next.
Closing the gap
Three years ago, 70% of teachers in the district felt they lacked the confidence to teach fundamental learning skills. Today, only 3% of students remain in the lowest proficiency level while 73% are reading at the highest level. During the 2018-2019 school year, students posted the highest gains in literacy rates.
"It all makes sense now," said one second grade teacher at Miles Elementary School, where 15 teachers have been trained in the O-G method since 2016. "I implemented other phonics approaches before, but none of them seemed as easy to follow or engaging for students as O-G."
Training is expected to expand in the next three years. To date, over 700 teachers have participated in training and 80 more will become certified in the O-G approach this fall. Moving forward, Atlanta Public Schools plan to schedule more schools for site visits. The program aims to reach across the entire APS district by 2020, with 1,500 teachers gaining the skills to teach to more than 25,000 students.
Chick-fil-A Foundation is dedicated to help every child become all that they can be. Through APS's literacy initiative, children are being given tools to gain confidence and advance their futures. Chick-fil-A Foundation is honored to support this mission.