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Deadline passes for Arkansas experimental literacy program

In the world of books and literature, "diversity" has recently become hotly debated, along with other cultural and media spheres. Though a few writers of color seem to be getting more shine, the demographics of those working behind the scenes in publishing remain almost entirely white.
Franziska Barczyk for NPR
$500 grants will go to Arkansas students struggling to read before third grade.

Wednesday marked an important deadline for a new statewide program aimed at helping students struggling to read before third grade.

A provision in the Arkansas LEARNS Act calls for the creation of literacy coaches. The program has rolled out in two components. First, the Literacy Tutoring Grant Program gives money to individual families while the High Impact Tutoring Pilot Program will go toward school districts.

This is part of larger efforts in Arkansas LEARNS to improve literacy rates, especially for readers under third grade. Low literacy rates among young students was brought up several times by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the law’s passage.

“Literacy is the foundation for learning,” she said in February of last year when she announced the bill. “In Pre-kindergarten through third grade, students are learning to read after third grade. They have to read in order to learn.”

The law does not specify the number of literacy coaches, but Sanders has repeatedly said the Department of Education will hire 120. They are only to go to students under third grade who “have not met the reading standard,” with priority going to students in the bottom 15% of their class.

The tutors must be trained in the Science of Reading curriculum, a phonics-based technique. The coaches come from approved reading nonprofits and tutoring companies on a list of vendors provided by the department.

Parents who applied to enter their children in the program were notified Wednesday. If approved, they’ll each receive a $500 grant which the Arkansas Department of Education estimates could be used for up to 25 sessions with a reading specialist. Each session is a minimum of 30 minutes. The department has not said how many students received the services, but they did say 20,000 kids are eligible for the money.

The department says they plan to keep data on how well the program improves reading outcomes.

“We are going to monitor to ensure that the highest quality is being provided,” Courtney Salas-Ford, chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education, said at a legislative hearing. "And of course, these tutoring services alone may not bring every student where they need to be but this is just a piece of a larger plan.”

Meanwhile, another literacy coach program called the High Impact Tutoring Pilot Program will be deployed to school districts across the state. The program will roll out this year.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.