Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave remarks at a literacy coach training event on Aug. 28, 2023. (Screengrab from livestream)
Dozens of coaches are preparing to help Arkansas students meet literacy standards outlined in the LEARNS Act, an expansive new education law backed by the governor.
During a training session Monday, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the new literacy coaches she knows the impact a single teacher can have on a student because an educator helped improve her daughter’s literacy skills after noticing she was “missing a couple of important markers when it came to reading.”
“When we challenge students, when we push them and when we raise the bar instead of lower it, they’re going to meet it because kids are absolutely resilient and amazing and each kid is capable of learning when given access to the right tools, the right resources and, frankly, the right teacher,” Sanders said.
Literacy coaches are working with schools to support beginning-of-the-year activities and will receive monthly training from August through next May, Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said.
In 2022, less than a third of Arkansas fourth graders scored at or above proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
The LEARNS Act requires all kindergarten through third-grade teachers in public schools earning a “D” or “F” rating to have access to literacy coaches to improve literacy rates. Mundell said literacy coaches will have a statewide impact, working with 103 districts, 181 school buildings, 2,075 teachers and 45,000 students. A total of 80% of their time will be spent in schools with a “D” or “F” rating, she said.
Deputy Education Commissioner Stacy Smith told the state education board during its Aug. 10 meeting that 78 literacy coaches had been hired. Most had been assigned to schools, she said.
“For the most part, those 78 coaches will cover the majority of the schools,” Smith said. “The schools that are not covered…[will be] partnering with a high-quality professional learning partner and then following that same coaching cycle piece that we have.”
Literacy coaches will spend the majority of their time in schools with 60% of their time dedicated to observations, coaching and direct support, Smith said. Other responsibilities include professional learning, partnering with principals to connect school goals to reading initiative goals and weekly meetings with their regional literacy coach team.
The state accepted applications for literacy coaches during a two-week period in May. According to an ADE memo, literacy coaches are required to have a minimum of three years of experience teaching literacy and an active teacher licensure in Arkansas or another state with eligible reciprocity.
They must also be trained in the “science of reading” — a collection of research from multiple fields using methods that confirm or disprove theories on how children best learn to read, according to the National Center on Improving Literacy — as aligned to Arkansas’ Right to Read Act.
Sponsored by former Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott in 2017, the law requires that educators employed in a teaching position that requires an elementary education (K-6) license or special education (K-12) license “shall demonstrate proficiency in knowledge and practices of scientific reading instruction.”
The salary for literacy coaches ranges from $60,000 to $80,000 depending on years of experience and contract days, Mundell said. Arkansas lawmakers approved $6.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for literacy coaches in May.
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva told literacy coaches Monday the state is investing in literacy and early childhood education to help improve kindergarten readiness and 3rd grade reading proficiency rates.
“This isn’t easy work, it’s hard work, but I know that you’re up to the task or you wouldn’t be sitting here…I am confident in your skills and ability to move those needles and move those metrics,” Oliva said.
The LEARNS Act requires literacy screening for K-3 students, and some students who don’t meet the third-grade reading standard by the 2025-2026 school year will not be promoted to 4th grade.
There are exemptions for students with limited English proficiency, disabilities or students who were already retained in kindergarten through third grade. Students who are held back or promoted with a waiver will get at least 90 minutes of literacy instruction every day.
The LEARNS Act also establishes a literacy tutoring grant program that will provide $500 per eligible student on a first-come, first-served basis, with priority given to students who are to be retained in third grade. Approximately $8.5 million has been allocated for the program, Mundell said.
Smith said a process is underway to vet the different vendors those funds could be used for and identify students and families who could qualify. Rules and procedures for the program “are being fleshed out right now,” she said.
ADE’s goal is to pilot the literacy tutoring grants this fall and release information on expanding the program next summer.
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