Georgia’s low literacy rate can be fixed despite the dismal statistics currently plaguing educators, the head of a council of state legislators, literacy experts, teachers, and school district officials said Tuesday.

“We will not shrink back from our mission,” Scott Johnson, chairman of the Georgia Council on Literacy, said at the 30-member panel’s second meeting on the campus of Kennesaw State University. “We will not fail.”

The General Assembly created the council this year to look for ways to improve literacy in Georgia. Under legislation that cleared the legislature unanimously last March, the panel has until the end of 2026 to achieve its goal.

As it begins its work, the council is facing some discouraging numbers. Fifty-six percent of Georgia third graders cannot read proficiently, Bill Reed, a partner in the consulting firm Deloitte, told council members Tuesday.

Students who can’t read are more likely to drop out of school at a time when 75% of new jobs expected to be created by 2028 require at least some post-secondary education, Reed said.

Johnson said he’s encouraged by the success educators both inside Georgia and out of state are having with efforts to improve literacy.

Two years ago, the Marietta City School District launched a program that involved hiring two reading coaches for each of the district’s eight elementary schools, as well as 37 reading specialists to work with students at a ratio of one to 10.

The program identifies students in grades one through five who aren’t reading at grade level and gives them 90 minutes of direct reading instruction five days a week, Superintendent Grant Rivera said. Students who need extra help also are offered four and a half hours of tutoring each week after school, he said.

Rivera said 90% of the parents offered after-school tutoring for their children have taken advantage of the opportunity.

“Families know when their kids are struggling,” he said. “Families desperately want their kids to get help.”

The extra work is paying off. Christina Wagoner, principal at Westside Elementary School in Marietta, said 82% of her third graders are now proficient readers, putting the school among the top 1% in Georgia.

Carey Wright, former state school superintendent in Mississippi, told council members about “The Mississippi Miracle,” a literacy effort initially funded with $3 million from the state legislature that was quickly boosted to $34 million per year.

It, too, involved hiring literacy coaches, 53 who were assigned to 103 low-performing schools. Mississippi also put a heavy emphasis on professional development, hiring coordinators who worked with teachers across the state, she said.

Wright said the program has helped Mississippi reduce teacher turnover.

“Teachers will stay in schools and districts where they feel supported,” she said.

As a result of the program, Mississippi improved from 50th in the nation in fourth-grade reading proficiency in 2013 to 21st last year.

Johnson pledged the new council will put together an aggressive, transparent effort to tackle the problem of low literacy in Georgia.

“We are not here to play small ball,” he said. “We will give Georgia the facts. … We will not cook the numbers.”

Dave Williams writes for Capitol Beat News Service

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