According to years of tracking, Butts County School students are making progress in state measures of reading proficiency. Many students are reading at grade level or above.

But year after year, too many are still scoring below grade level.

Todd Simpson, Butts County’s new superintendent of schools, has a vision for reaching those children who start school behind and often never catch up.

On Nov. 20, he stood before 70 community leaders and declared his position: “Improving the literacy levels of our children is my job. I am accountable. I gladly signed up for this job.”

But because critical literacy skills are developed from birth to year 4, he said, “We must have a coordinated effort. Success only comes when we all work together.”

Simpson spoke to members of a task force he has gathered to work with him in his quest. The invited guests included social workers, law enforcement, and medical personnel, pastors, retired teachers, and others who work in agencies that provide services to children.

After a general overview of the data that indicates Butts County’s literacy levels, including the Georgia Milestones End of Grade Level Tests, Simpson turned the meeting over to his administrative team to present statistics that impact student learning. Simpson and his team are particularly focused on indications of reading proficiency by the end of grade three.

School psychologist Dr. Ashara McKee-Williams noted that students who are not reading on level by third grade are four times more likely to have reading difficulties in adulthood; three times more likely to have mental health problems, and twice as likely to be unemployed.

Simpson noted also that students who don’t read well by third grade are more likely to “interface with law enforcement.”

But reading proficiency doesn’t start in kindergarten or even pre-K.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in learning to read is limited language acquisition. Students who learn to read easily possess a huge vocabulary and expressive oral skills.

State and national data indicate strong correlations between depressed language development and other data: income levels, parental educational levels, birth and the emotional climate of the home. But all of these factors can be overcome with a language rich environment—talk, conversation, reading, naming and oral play.

According to school social worker Susan Sarsany, 436 Butts County students are considered homeless by state standards. Sarsany said that while many of these homeless families may temporarily live with relatives and are not all on the street, the situations “are not stable.”

She noted that every Friday the schools send home 300 children with backpacks filled with food to get them through the weekend.

“I want to put a book in all of those backpacks, as well,” said Sarsany.

Beverly Stewart, owner and director of Beverly’s Day Care, said, “When Susan was talking, I was thinking, that those children who are homeless are too concerned about where their next meal is coming from to worry about reading, tests and homework. They are thinking about where they will sleep.”

Stewart went on to say that she sees the same societal problems that interfere with early learning at her center.

“Even people with educations and good jobs are sometimes unable to make ends meet. Sometimes husbands abandon families, sometimes mothers get sick. But it all has an impact on the children, especially young children.”

All pre-K teachers in Georgia are required to read aloud to their students three times a day, Stewart said. “They have to write it in their plans and provide documentation that they have done it.”

Low birth weight and premature births are also highly correlated with brain development, reading and vision difficulties. Last year, 11.1 percent of children born in Butts County weighed less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces.

According to Babies Can’t Wait coordinator Erin Downing, “Brain nutrition is as important as body nutrition. A baby’s brain from birth on should be immersed in language and vocabulary, conversations, naming.”

The school system offers parent education programs through its Family Enrichment Center. Daughtry’s Family Education coordinator Sheryl Warner goes into the homes of 19 students, and gets down on the floor and works with the children with puzzles and crafts, leading them to build language skills, but one person can’t do it all.

To guide them toward their vision of improved early literacy, BCSS is following a state program adopted by many other counties. Across Georgia 64% are not proficient readers, so Get Georgia Reading was developed.

Curriculum expert Fran Dundore described the four pillars of the Get Georgia Reading program:

Language Nutrition: ♦ All children receive abundant, language-rich adult-child interactions, which are as critical for brain development as healthy food is for physical growth.

Access: ♦ All children and their families have year-round access to, and supportive services for, healthy physical and social-emotional development and success in high-quality early childhood and elementary education. Dundore wants to outfit an old school bus to help provide access to literacy tools — a kind of modern bookmobile.

Positive Learning Climate: ♦ All educators, families, and policymakers understand and address the impact of learning climate on social-emotional development, attendance, engagement, academic achievement, and ultimately student success.

Teacher Preparation and Effectiveness: ♦ All teachers of children ages 0-8 are equipped with evidence-informed skills, knowledge, and resources that effectively meet the literacy needs of each child in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Simpson noted that ensuring effective, engaging instruction is where he and his principals, support staff and teachers concentrate their efforts. But he is asking for help from the community in the community.

The next task force meeting will be Jan. 22. Call the Board of Education office if you want to help.