White woman with blonde hair sits in chair hugging young boy with brown hair outside in front of trees and brick building
Jenna Peterson, pictured on April 3, 2023, has been helping her son Max learn to read outside of school. She hopes a new Georgia law will help. (Caleb Groves/Fresh Take Georgia)

Max Peterson was unable to read any of the signs at the Georgia Aquarium during his first-grade field trip there last month.

“Everyone just kept telling me, ‘He’s a boy, he’s going to learn slower,’ but now he is in first grade and completely unable to read and write,” his mother, Jenna, said.

When his Cobb County elementary school classes were forced online during the coronavirus pandemic, things got worse, she said. Teachers had difficulties keeping him and other students focused and engaged. He has not gotten the support necessary for him to be on level for first-grade literacy, his mom said.

Gov. Kemp recently signed into law a measure aimed at helping students like Max. House Bill 538 requires local school boards to approve “high-quality instructional materials” for helping kindergarten through third-grade students read, provide training for teachers on the science of reading and deliver feedback for improving their instruction. Starting next year, they must also begin a program for monitoring their students’ progress.

State Rep. Bethany Ballard, a Warner Robins Republican who sponsored the bill, wants to go back to what she says are proven methods.

Last year, only 36% of Georgia third-graders were considered proficient or higher in English language arts, according to state Milestones test results.

“If you are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, you are less likely to graduate, you are less likely to be gainfully employed, and you are actually more likely to end up in jail,” said Ballard, who previously taught high school in Marietta.

She added: “It’s time that we stop using our children as guinea pigs for every curriculum that just comes across the board.”

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, pointed out Ballard’s bill does not provide funding and said it does not include realistic timelines.

Cash-strapped schools in Georgia are already struggling with teacher burnout and staffing shortages, Morgan said. Some schools have 10-year-old textbooks, so requiring them to find the funds for a whole new curriculum is unreasonable, Morgan said.

“We do not need more unfunded programs when our public schools are already suffering from unmet needs in other areas,” Morgan said.

COVID-19 devastated Georgia Milestones test scores in English language arts and for the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam.

Nationwide, NAEP literacy testing scores dropped from 2019 to 2022. More than half of eighth-grade students in every state are reading below proficiency, according to Beyond Basics, a nonprofit literacy program. Morgan questions the validity of the legislation’s scoring system and believes the bar is set too high.

Some districts have already taken the initiative. The Marietta City Schools system, for example, is investing $7 million in improving literacy rates. The funding will ensure a 10-to-1 ratio of children to teachers and provide teachers a one-time $5,000 bonus, said Chris Fiore, a school system spokesman.

Cobb County’s school system is helping boost childhood literacy through its Summer Learning Quest program, which focuses on pre-K through eighth-grade students. Some Cobb schools are also offering this program during the school year, including during spring break.

Childhood literacy requires a holistic approach because it is affected by many factors, including maternal health, premature birth and adult education, said Arianne Weldon, who directs the Get Georgia Reading Campaign.

“No matter your situation or station in life, if you read proficiently by the end of third grade,” she said, “you are far more likely to be in the game, period.”

Meanwhile, Jenna Peterson, who has been helping her son Max learn to read outside of school, hopes the new Georgia law will give him a boost.

“I definitely feel like he is being pushed along,” she said, “rather than being helped at the level he needs to be helped at.”

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