As a National Public Radio education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez is used to asking the thorny questions and then questioning the answers. He spied an opening during an interval at the Literacy Center of West Michigan's sixth annual Community Literacy Summit, held last week at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center.

Before long, Sanchez sparked up a conversation in the conference hall with Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal; East Kentwood High School math teacher Luke Wilcox; and Mike Nassar, director of the Community Literacy Initiative.

A former teacher, Sanchez decided to find out a few things about Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which stipulates that students who test a year or more behind grade level in reading are to be retained.

“Here’s my question: If we look two or three years down the road, will anything have changed because of this law?” Sanchez asked them.

“For me, this third-grade reading law is saying that literacy is priority,” said Wilcox, 2017-18 Michigan Teacher of the Year. “So now schools have to create new systems that are going to ensure less third-graders are falling behind. As that happens, and it is going to happen, then we have won.”

The Literacy Summit created a dynamic space for community leaders, parents, and educators to share their understandings, and explore ways to help area children read well. Its theme: “Reading by Third Grade: Our Shared Opportunity, Our Shared Responsibility.”

“Reading on grade level is key to unlocking a successful future for our children, families and community,” Nassar said. “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success.”

At the Literacy Center's Community Literacy Summit, NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez spoke of the importance of high-quality early schooling and literacy for all children

Districts Prepare for Law

With the help of the Literacy Center and Kent ISD, Kent County’s 20 school districts aspire to meet the reading law’s expectations through early identification and support. They are hiring reading specialists, offering one-on-one tutoring, providing teacher development, and targeting intervention for struggling students with Individualized Reading Improvement Plans.

Sanchez probed local educators about the controversial law.

“I’m curious about how much research went into that decision,” he said to Neal, Wilcox and Nassar. “Did people look at how a law like this could potentially stigmatize kids. You keep a child back a year -- and there is evidence that a kid will see him or herself as a failure – the stigma sticks and then you wonder when they leave their peer group, if things might get worse.”

Reporting on educational reform in politics, policy and pedagogy from Eugene, Oregon to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Sanchez appears regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. He tells of geographical disparities that stifle teaching, learning, student performance and residential segregation.

“In the USA, more than any other place in the world, our schools are not doing as much as they can to close the achievement gap -- meaning the reading gap,” Sanchez said in his keynote address. “School children in America make less progress each year than their counterparts in the best performing countries.”

It’s not enough to know that your child is a high-flying academic achiever, Sanchez said; every child -- including from poor, undereducated or marginalized families -- should get the extraordinary investment in early childhood education that he or she rightly deserves.

“In this environment that we are in today, our inability or unwillingness to solve the issue of segregation by race and class because we don’t see them -- other students -- as our own, tells me that we are headed for a serious crisis,” Sanchez said.

“It is opportunity that is at risk, if we don’t get this right.”

Some placards at the Summit showed stark statistics

Parents Play Key Role

GRPS Superintendent Neal understands that what happens out of the classroom also needs to be considered. When parents struggle with reading, their children do, too.

Neal says it’s not enough for only the schools to provide the encouragement and time for reading; parents and families must do the same. GRPS plans to send books home with students, challenge their parents to read aloud with them for 10 minutes, and introduce online sight word and vocabulary games.

“I want to capture the fun of reading, because reading introduces new words, new words adds to your vocabulary, gives you information, takes you someplace -- so now you know more,” said Neal. She is part of Reading Now Network, a collaborative of West Michigan school districts committed to ensuring that at least 80 percent of third-graders can read proficiently.

That’s all well and good, but Sanchez wondered what happens when teachers and schools are weighed down by education policy-making subject to the political whims of the newly elected.

“There is always the danger that this reading law is the new flavor of the month, and in three or four years what if the data says, ‘Well you know this really didn’t have that much of an impact’ -- then guess what’s going to happen?” Sanchez questioned. “They will throw it out and look to something else.

“Or a new governor doesn’t want to adopt this because ‘I don’t want my name attached to the other party's big reading push.’ And so things have a way of phasing out.”

GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal spoke of the urgency -- and hope -- of Michigan’s third-grade reading law

Schools Plus Community

Neal, a member Governor Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Michigan Education Commission, says schools and the community must work together for student achievement. She shared with Sanchez the district’s three-pronged educational initiative with Harvard University.

“School systems don’t exist in a bubble, so these kids belong to people in the community,” Neal said. “When they leave in the afternoon, you will see them, and it is in your best interest to get on board with me.”

GRPS’ partners in the philanthropic and business communities have been supportive, she added, “because I tell them your future is directly tied to whether or not my kids are successful.”

After half an hour or so, Sanchez and Neal moved into the Eberhard’s atrium to continue the dialogue. Sanchez vowed to return with his reporter’s notebook.

“You’re appealing to people’s sensibilities, to their humanity,” Sanchez told Neal. “I think most educators and parents lose sight of that during this enterprise, that we forget we should be talking to each other in the most empathetic terms instead of it’s your fault or your problems. That is such a waste a time and doesn’t solve a thing.

“For the people running a school district, you have to take the time or the patience to say to someone ‘Let me tell you how we can solve this, together.’”