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10 Questions With … Terri Clark Arizona Literacy Director

Monday, August 6, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Andrea Evans
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By Karen Werner

You grew up in Arizona and now serve as the state’s literacy director. Talk about that journey.

I grew up in Mesa, graduated from Westwood High, went to Brown University in Rhode Island and majored in literature in society. After Brown, I was drawn to the nonprofit sector and became the executive director for Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles. Then I ran an education foundation and ultimately a statewide early literacy organization called Bring Me a Book. That’s where I began to see that we really needed to all be rowing in the same direction. When I talked with my staff in San Diego, Los Angeles or Sacramento, what I kept hearing was that we were all doing our best, but we weren’t very collaborative. In 2012, Arizona was looking for a state literacy director to coordinate literacy efforts. I was intrigued by the idea of bringing the learning I had gained over the years back to Arizona, so I threw my hat in the ring and was lucky to get selected.

Tell us about the work Read On Arizona is doing.

Read On Arizona is a statewide public-private partnership of agencies, philanthropic organizations and community stakeholders that are all committed to improving early literacy outcomes for children from birth through the end of third grade. Through using data to determine gaps and identify solutions to help fill those gaps and implement an approach in a collaborative way, we are reducing duplication and doing what we know works.

Why is third-grade reading so important?

Research has shown that third grade is an excellent checkpoint on the path to becoming not only a successful reader, but successful in school and in life. Early literacy is more than just reading. It’s communication, it’s speaking and listening, and especially critical thinking. If you think about all those essential skills for anyone as they go through school, college or whatever job they want to pursue, early language and literacy skills are part of the foundation for that learning. If students are on track at third grade, they’re mostly on track to graduate high school and be ready for whatever career they want to pursue.

Where does Arizona currently stand in regard to grade-level reading?

I like to be an optimist. Over the last 10 years, when we look at what the country uses as a metric, which is the National Assessment for Educational Progress, Arizona is below the national standard. But over the last 10 years it is the third most-improved state in reading for fourth graders out of all states. I like to make sure we understand that context — that over the last 10 years we may have started further behind, but we’ve made a lot of progress. But when we look at where we’re at and where we need to be, we still have a lot of work to do. Arizona uses a state English language arts assessment called AZMerit. When we measure our progress as a state, only 44 percent of third-grade students are passing that AzMERIT assessment for English language arts. The bigger issue — and why I say we have so much more work to do — is that an equal number of kids, 44 percent, are minimally proficient, meaning our lowest category of four categories. It breaks down that 44 percent are minimally proficient, 12 percent are partially proficient, and then the 44 percent that are passing are 31 percent proficient and 13 percent highly proficient. So we have to do much better for our most struggling readers.

Is the needle moving in the right direction?

I’d say yes. It’s amazing we’ve made the reading progress we’ve made as a state during very economically challenging years. What we have to understand is that it takes eight years to build a reader. That’s why Read On has two target goals. We want to increase the number of children entering kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed as well as focus on more students at the end of third grade reading proficiently. To do that, we need to invest more resources, but we also have to be smart about how we invest in making sure that children have the kinds of support they need in their earliest years. It’s not just about what our education data is telling us, it’s also about what our health data is telling us and what our economic data is telling us. We need to understand as a community and as a state where our children and families are and what kinds of support they need. I can share that Arizona has the lowest vision screening rates of any state for children aged 0 to 5 in the country. Healthy vision is a key piece of being able to learn to read. We’re below the national average in children enrolled in preschool and only about a quarter of our 3 and 4 year olds are in a quality learning setting. So it’s no wonder we have children starting that first day of kindergarten already significantly behind.

You’re a mother yourself. How did you encourage your sons to love reading?

My husband and I read to them from a very young age. We also made sure that conversation was a big part of their daily routine. I think that’s a big part of the secret sauce, not only helping them develop a love of reading but to develop a strong vocabulary. Finding what they’re interested in, reading a book over and over again. When they were young, we went to the library every Saturday and they got to pick the books that they wanted to check out. I continued to read with my two boys until they were well into middle school — they’re teenagers now. I remember we read "Ready Player One" together and they loved it so much I had to hide the book each night so they wouldn’t read ahead of me.

What’s new with Read On Arizona right now?

We’ve just updated our strategic plan and have five strategic focus areas. One of the key shifts is we’re going to be exploring the success that we’ve seen in some of our Read On communities and partners’ work. We just got funding to launch what we’re calling our acceleration zone project. The idea behind it is that those that have seen progress around school readiness or third-grade reading will unpack what they feel has caused their success, especially those that have been able to either minimize or almost eliminate the gap between how economically disadvantaged students are reading versus all students. We want to understand how they’re being successful and then ask what it would take to accelerate that work.

Any other highlights?

One of the other things we’re excited about is our Smart Talk awareness campaign for language and literacy. We launched it because the data was showing us that we had to focus more on making sure families understood what they can do for their children in those very early 0 to 3 years. There’s a lot of research that shows that a child’s vocabulary by the time they are 3 is one of the best predictors of how successful a reader they’ll be. So we developed this campaign to raise awareness among parents and caregivers about talking and reading with young child starting from day one, and that it makes a big difference in how that child’s brain develops. We also wanted to stress that there are everyday opportunities to incorporate it. So we have five easy ways to incorporate Smart Talk: ASK questions, DESCRIBE and RESPOND to your child when they’re showing an interest, REPEAT what they’re saying and READ with them every day. We break it down and show examples of how they can try it.

If people want to support Read On Arizona, how they can help?

The best way for community members to support Read On Arizona is to actively get involved in your local Read On community work, whether that’s donating or serving as a volunteer. You can make donations to Read On Arizona through our collaborative fund at the Arizona Community Foundation. That funding goes to support Read On work throughout the state.

Any final literacy tips for parents or caregivers?

Make it fun at home! The decoding and comprehension will come at school. Find books they’re interested in — it doesn’t have to be chapter books. Graphic novels, comic books, Sports Illustrated for Kids, whatever it might be. Let them pick a book they’ll like and read with them and to them as much as you can, especially when they’re little.

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