Steve McKenzie

File / The Herald

Elmore County Public Schools Steve McKenzie, director of elementary schools, informs the board of changes in reading standards related to the Alabama Literacy Act.

Elmore County educators are looking at implementing requirements of the state’s newly passed Alabama Literacy Act. 

One of the main components of the law is making sure third-grade students can read at a proficient level.

“When the students get to third grade is when we hold them accountable,” said Cacey Russell, who is Alabama Reading Initiative reading specialist at Airport Road Intermediate School. “If they do not have that foundation, more than likely they will not be successful in almost any subject area we put in front of them because reading is the foundation. If we are not working to build that foundation, we are setting them up for failure in almost every aspect of their lives.” 

Elmore County Schools elementary director Steve McKenzie said the system has questions he expects will be addressed sometime in February. 

“We are waiting until February to find out more in terms of what the reading programs will be,” he said. “You’ll have to have a state-approved reading program and a state-approved intervention program. It could be a lot of different options. I’m hoping there are more options available than one, per se.”

While the county school system is waiting on more details from the state, it has described the program as prescriptive.

“This (program) is multisensory,” Elmore County Schools professional learning and development director Amy Harrison said. “Reading is a true science. Kids do not just get it by osmosis. They have to have a lot of practice and differentiated learning that meets their needs. What works for one child may not work for another. Here in Elmore County, we’re trying to get a jump on it because we see what other states are doing with regard to literacy and retention.”

The Alabama Department of Education requested a $300 million increase in its 2020-21 fiscal year budget last week. 

A large part of that is planned to fund the state’s new literacy programs within K-12 public schools. 

State education superintendent Eric Mackey told legislators at a budget hearing the department planned to spend about $50 million toward literacy, including $10 million to hire specialists and $21 million would go toward one-time training for kindergarten to third-grade teachers.

Some of the money would go toward hiring reading specialists assigned to each of the state’s 53 lowest-performing schools. 

The department would hire other specialists to provide help on a monthly and quarterly basis.

Legislators will determine how much schools and state agencies get when they return to work Feb. 4.

“The state superintendent (Mackey) has been charged with a big task from the state legislature,” McKenzie said. “It is a tall order. I think it will really help I hope, in Elmore County, attaching an accountability piece where it puts everybody in the accountability loop from parents to students.

“Right now, the school system and the teachers are the ones who have been held accountable in terms of the students learning. Now, you start putting barriers where if you are not at a certain level you do not proceed it gets the parents’ attention. Hopefully we can start working together for the benefits of the child.”

The Alabama Literacy Act, passed last spring and effective Sept. 1, was designated to improve academic achievement across the state by ensuring early learners get a solid foundation in reading. 

McKenzie said the school system is already doing several of the requirements in the act.

“We are already doing interventions and we are pushing to start summer reading camps this summer,” he said. “We have groups of educators coming together and looking at the academic issues of students and putting a plan in place to help them get to where they need to be. We are fortunately already doing a lot of the things. I feel like we are going to be in a good spot.”