Education Nation

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The Education Nation is an NBC News’ year-round initiative to engage the country in a conversation about the state of education in America. Arizona Literacy Director Terri Clark and First Things First Vice President of External Affairs, Sam Leyvas, talk about the Education Nation and literacy in Arizona.

Josè Càrdenas: The education nation is an NBC news year round initiative to engage the country in the conversation about the state of education in America. Last week education nation was in Phoenix. We'll talk to the two people who will talk about the summit as well as literacy issue in a moment. First here's what some of the panelists had to say about the achievement gap in our state.

Rhian Evans Allvin: We should be focusing on making sure that we invest in kids at a really early age. We know from all of the science, from the research if they've got language proficiency they will be fine. We really have to say I don't agree this is an issue of race. I think it's an issue of poverty. We have many, many children who are English language speakers who are illiterate and come to school not ready to decode and do all the complex things that the common core requires of them. It's a language issue and the thing that's frustrating is that we know how to fix it. We know what happens when you're in a home where there's a lot of print material and families are having conversations and kids are exposed to high quality learning, they are not just in custodial care when they are in child care, and they are in early learning experiences we know they are going to be okay.

Joy Weiss: I think that we are going to continue to have an achievement gap between white and Hispanics. I would agree it's more about poverty than race. Coming out of the district I'm coming from where a large percentage of our students are refugees, migrant, Mexican Americans. We don't have a lot of the white middle class that we would label kids in those races. We're looking at poverty. When we're so focused on reading we may start to feel we need to narrow the curriculum once again which is what we tried to do with No Child Left Behind. We have to forget that model of narrowing.

Josè Càrdenas: Joining me is Terri Clark, Arizona literacy director. She was on one of the panels talking about early literacy. Also here is Sam LEYVAS, vice president of external affairs for first things first. Before we talk about that, give us some background on education nation.

Terri Clark: Sure. Education nation this year did three local sort of summits. They started in Milwaukee I believe, then New Orleans, ended in Phoenix. It was really exciting. This is the first time they focused on early literacy in one of their panels. They did three sessions of town halls and panels focusing on education and what's innovative and what our challenges are.

Josè Càrdenas: It's going on as we speak and won't be over until Friday?

Terri Clark: There's various events going on throughout the week, but they did an opening ceremony on Thursday, they had four panel sessions of the town hall on Friday.

Josè Càrdenas: You were on one of those that focused on the gap. I want to talk about that in a moment. Before I do that, Sam, this is a subject of particular interest to first things first. Kind of give us a sense of the state of Arizona in this regard from the perspective of your organization.

Sam Leyvas: You're right. It is of particular interest to first things first. 90% of a child's brain development happens in the first five years of life it can lay a foundation for a lifetime. We think it's crucial that we help provide parents tools they need to help kids have stable, nurturing environments. We partner to help parents in their roles as their child's first and best teacher.

Josè Càrdenas: You're literacy director for the state of Arizona.

Terri Clark: That's one of the reasons we were selected from education nation because it's a unique collaboration. Arizona has a state literacy director, that's my position, actually shared between six founding partners. The State Department of education, first things first, the head start state collaboration office and three education foundations. Piper charitable trust and Arizona community foundation. What the director gets to do is coordinate the services along the continuum. It was clear to us that you can't fix this literacy issue unless you're dealing with the whole continuum, birth to age eight. That critical milestone of 3rd grade is the last stop. The first step starts with day one.

Josè Càrdenas: As I understand it while this was a very useful discussion, some people thought there was too much focus on that critical stop as opposed to getting started at the very beginning.

Terri Clark: I'm probably one of those that felt that. I think the retention policy is important for people to know about and to understand how it might impact them and their child and their student but it's more important to understand that that has to be the last sort of line of defense, not the first place that we focus. How much families can do and what they can do to get their kids ready before they even enter kindergarten. That's the half-way point. That's what we need to look at what. Are we doing in the first few years that are critical to their brain developments, language acquisition and literacy skills that are so important; vocabulary a leading indicator of success later on.

Josè Càrdenas: Everything in the papers, about the last three, four weeks, was or curriculum, standards and whether this was a plot by the U.N. to take over our decision making here. Not much discussion of the kinds of issues you're focused on.

Sam Leyvas: Terri is right. Helping parents to understand that it's really every day moments that can be learning moments. It can be simple as trips in the grocery store, having lots of bridge communication and dialogue working with kids to look at apples and point out different colors. Having lots of rich material, learning reading material around the home. Thinking about the interactions being the important piece of early learning and development, cognitive skills, social skills, development skills.

Josè Càrdenas: How do you communicate that to the parents? What kind of strategies are you employing now?

Terri Clark: We have great family engagement strategies. We're working with our partners to pilot them in a number of our communities, but it's as simple as messaging that reading is important. Reading with meaningful interaction is important, also telling stories and talking. Talking as much to your young children as much as possible in whatever language you're most comfortable in is actually going to set them up for success when they develop and are learning English or are already a dual language learner. We're really trying to teach families what that means to a great example of in the grocery store you can describe three types of parents. One a child points at an eggplant and the parent says, oh, you won't like that let's go, we're late. Let's go. The second parent may say that's an eggplant and you cook with it. The third parent says, oh, isn't that an interesting vegetable? It's purple. Isn't it a funny shape? You can make lot of yummy things with an eggplant. You can do that any place, anytime, anywhere during the day. It doesn't have to just be when you sit down with a book.

Josè Càrdenas: On the achievement gap, how important is the role that your organization plays?

Sam Leyvas: I think we're one of many partners in the early childhood system. We play an important role but I think getting kids ready for school is really a community role. I think we all have a vested interest in making sure that that happens.

Josè Càrdenas: Thank you both for joining us to talk about this subject. Certainly an important issue for the state of Arizona.

Terri Clark:Arizona Literacy Director; Sam Leyvas:Vice President of External Affairs, First Things First;

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