Let’s stop distancing ourselves from root causes of systemic failure

Written by Wendy White, originally published on Arizona Capitol Times, May 8 2020

At the center of Read Better Be Better’s (RBBB) after-school literacy program at Title 1 schools is the relationship between the 3rd graders who struggle with reading and their 6th-8th grade mentors who are at-risk either academically or behaviorally. Paired together for 10 weeks during a semester and meeting twice a week for 90 minutes each session, the 6th-8th grade Leaders are trained to use a simple but strategic curriculum to work with the 3rd grade Readers on bettering their reading comprehension, concentration, and the enjoyment of reading with the goal that the Readers will read at grade level by the end of the school year. Students who don’t read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school  {1}.  But with proper reading intervention, there is an 89% chance that students who can read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade will graduate from high school, irrespective of socio-economic status {2}.


During the past five years, RBBB has provided essential instruction in foundational literacy skills to thousands of struggling Readers. On average, our 3rd grade participants outperform their non-participating peers by more than 23% on standardized comprehension tests upon completion of the 10-week program {3}. And in addition to improving literacy at the 48 schools in which we provide services, our program has also been found to strengthen community between students who normally wouldn’t interact because of their age differences. But what happens to an after-school program when there is no school, as our students are currently experiencing now with closures across the state for the rest of the academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic? What effect does this have, not only on their academic achievement but on their sense of community at a time of uncertainty and isolation? And what can we learn from this pandemic?


Like countless other local nonprofits have experienced over this last month, RBBB has been dealing with unforeseen changes and new demands. We have been working intently with our school district partners to revamp our program in two different formats to fit into the new at-home context of our schools so that our students can continue learning and avoid regress in their reading progress. First, our staff developed a Family Literacy Kit that includes our program materials, including a family literacy guide and a story book, which translates our school program to home use with caregivers assuming the role of Leaders for their children. In May we will distribute these kits at the local schools as students pick up their daily meals. We have also placed the family literacy guide on our website (https://www.readbetterbebetter.org/family-literacy-guide/). Second, we are working with the Avondale Elementary School District to implement a pilot program using Zoom to safely link our Readers and Leaders remotely, not only to boost literacy skills but to re-establish community and connectedness while our students are secluded.


However, we are clearly aware that for the communities we serve, digital access is an unaffordable luxury in the best of times not to mention now, in the face of even greater economic uncertainty and disparity, and in a state that has processed more than 345,000 claims for unemployment benefits just since mid-March to the week that ended April 10. As Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman tweeted on March 30, “This crisis will worsen many inequities that have long-existed across our system & widen the achievement gap between under-resourced communities and their more advantaged counterparts.”


The superintendent’s tweet highlights a point that needs to be stressed: the students in our program struggle with reading not because they’re not smart enough or are not working hard enough or don’t receive proper classroom instruction. They struggle for many reasons that are simply outside of their control and center on inequities in systems that affect them and, for many, have affected their families for multiple generations: poverty, housing and homelessness, employment, crime rates and incarceration, healthcare, and education. Arizona has a dismal record in all these categories for vulnerable populations.


Our state consistently hovers near the bottom of the national rankings for public schools. We’re 47th in the nation for per student funding {4}. We’re 49th for teacher pay {5}. For decades the State of Arizona has been involved in lawsuit after lawsuit for violating the federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act, the methods for funding school facilities and programs for at-risk students, and for being out-of-compliance with remedies from previous rulings. {6} So is it any wonder that Arizona is 44th for pre-K-12 education? {7} That more than half our students failed the 2019 AzMERIT state standardized test? {8} That we have the second highest dropout rate in the country? {9} No, especially when you consider the other disparities that are stacked against too many students in this state.


Public schools are now charged with providing an array of social services outside of education, from addressing nutrition to healthcare to social-emotional needs. Now, during this pandemic, they’re figuring out how to do so in new ways with school buses distributing meals, school social workers offering YouTube videos on relaxation techniques for families during this stressful time, as well as providing educational instruction online or through paper learning packets. Our public schools are not, by and large, failing our students. But we are. Because year after year, opportunity gaps are allowed to persist by elected officials at all levels and, ultimately, by us.


This pandemic has the potential to further scar our most vulnerable and limit our students to even more narrow life paths. But the disparities that the virus has more clearly revealed also creates the opportunity for change. As an organization, RBBB was founded five years ago to respond to the need in our community for a 3rd grade reading intervention program. But we cannot change Arizona’s childhood literacy crisis in a vacuum. The many chasms that exist in our society have to be bridged in order that all children receive equal footing for their futures. While the COVID-19 virus has distanced us socially for months, in our post-pandemic world we each must stop distancing ourselves from the root causes that drive our systemic failures and finally address, head on and as a community, the outdated beliefs, biases, and political obstructionism that sustain them.


  1. Professor Donald J. Hernandez, “Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2011.
  2. From Dibels DAZE testing results comparing RBBB participants and their non-participating classmates, 2018-2019 school year.
  3. 2016 U.S. Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2019/school-spending.html
  4. 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://azbigmedia.com/business/education-news/data-shows-no-movement-in-national-rank-for-arizona-teachers-pay/
  5. Major State of Arizona school cases: https://edlawcenter.org/states/arizona.html
  6. S. News and World Report, 2019: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education/prek-12
  7. Arizona Department of Education results, 2019: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-education/2019/10/07/2019-arizona-azmerit-search-scores-school/2201197001/
  8. S. News and World Report, 2019: https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/articles/see-high-school-graduation-rates-by-state