What was the last thing you read before this article? Was it a favorite novel, a cookbook, or the news? Maybe, you recently had to look up directions to an address or spent some time browsing social media.

Though many of us take it for granted, we rely on literacy every day to get us through work and our social lives. The ability to read is a gift and a tool for succeeding in the classroom and the workplace. One local project called Step Forward aims to make sure that all children in Caddo, Bossier, and DeSoto parishes have the reading skills they need to thrive in school. Heliopolis sat down with Laura Alderman, Executive Director of Step Forward, to learn more about what Step Forward is doing to improve literacy and job readiness for students in Northwest Louisiana.

Step Forward came to be due to “a group of community leaders that was very concerned about the educational outcomes of our children,” said Alderman. These leaders came across the StriveTogether Network while researching for opportunities to help local children excel in school. Alderman explained that the Strive Together Network “harnesses the collective power of a cross-sector of organizations.” Strive has identified critical points for a child to succeed and Step Forward has adopted these points with the hopes to ensure that every adult has the ability to sustain a living wage job by the age of 25. Attention to the critical areas will foster improvement in education and employability.

The areas include: Early Childhood Education, K-8th grade, High School, Post-Secondary, clep test prep, Economic, Civic, and Service. In our local parishes, a network of teams represents these critical areas. The teams individually develop action plans that include “manageable and feasible projects,” said Alderman. One of these projects kicking into gear for its second school year is the third-grade literacy proficiency project.

reading

Third-grade is a pivotal year in schooling for many students. It is the time when students can start receiving letter grades and the time they need to develop crucial reading skills. “If you are not reading by third-grade you are four times more likely to drop out of school,” explained Alderman.

Currently, only 64.6 percent of third-graders are proficient in English/Language Arts according to Step Forward’s baseline report. At this time, there are around 1,900 students in third-grade not reading well in our local parishes. Step Forward seeks to decrease this number by sending trained tutors into schools in which students demonstrate need for literacy improvement.

As a Step Forward tutor, one is assigned to a local school to visit at least once a week and work one-on-one with a student. To be a tutor, you must go through the Step Forward training. Prospective tutors work together during the training sessions to learn the best strategies for strengthening literacy skills. In a few weeks, the schools will lead orientations for the tutors. This process is effective by ensuring that tutors are well trained and can identify reading areas which need the most improvement.

“If you are not reading by third-grade you are four times more likely to drop out of school,” explained Alderman.

To track students’ progress, Step Forward provides a “Baseline Report,” which is made available to the community and updated annually. “We don’t want to waste the communities efforts on a program that is not producing results,” said Alderman. The baseline report ensures those results are made available to the community, whether they show progress or not. Since its first year of implementation in the 2014-15 school year, Step Forward has already made great gains. The project has expanded in the SBC area and has added more schools to its third-grade literacy proficiency program. Since the 2012 baseline, third-grade ELA proficiency has risen 2.1 percent. To help this percentage continue to rise, education must receive extra effort from our local community.

Step Forward’s mission is, “Fostering regional collaboration through active citizenship; improving educational outcomes for all children; building a vibrant community, and preparing a globally competitive workforce.” To achieve this mission, community involvement is truly essential. Alderman emphasized to Heliopolis that Step Forward “want[s] to encourage the community to really take responsibility not just for the children biologically related to us, but all of the children in our community who really need our help and support.” Our amazing local teachers are already brightening students’ lives in the classroom. They are trained and dedicated to providing the best instruction possible. Step Forward wants to help continue the learning process after school lets out at three o’clock.

With strong community effort, children can receive the extra nurturing they may need and also have help catching up when they are behind in school.

How can you help with Step Forward? Step Forward partners with more than 50 organizations in the Ark-La-Tex area. You can become involved with Step Forward by supporting the program through one of these organizations, or by becoming a volunteer. As Alderman said, “The whole community needs to be involved.”

There are a multitude of ways to help support a child and inspire the love to learn. Contact Laura Alderman at The Community Foundation to discover volunteer opportunities and ways you can support local children’s education and future career readiness.

To learn more about Step Forward and visit their website and follow Step Forward on Facebook. You have the power to help a child succeed.

Photo: Children’s Librarian at Stonewall Library Cookie Cole (right), Sara and Cooper.