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A New Plan to Raise the Lowest Literacy Rates in the Nation

Amid a nationwide literacy crisis, New Mexico stands out for its dead last ranking in reading performance on the federally administered nation’s report card. Arsenio Romero has been New Mexico’s secretary of education only since last year. But he has ambitious plans to work on turning around his state’s literacy reputation, and he wants to do it fast—including a big push this summer.

As part of an ambitious $30 million statewide initiative to boost literacy rates, New Mexico has planned a free four- to six-week summer reading program open to all public school students entering kindergarten through 9th grade. The program promises small-group instruction by trained literacy instructors who will be paid $35 an hour.

It’s a splashy start to a long-range turnaround initiative that could take years.

Romero is confident the initiative can succeed, knowing intimately the challenges and needs of the community of learners he oversees. A native of New Mexico, he points to his mother, a 1st grade teacher, as the inspiration behind his own pursuit of education as a career, which he began as an elementary school teacher and principal before becoming a district administrator.

Romero has been recognized for his leadership multiple times. In 2019, the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents awarded Romero, then superintendent of the Deming school district in New Mexico, the National ALAS Superintendent of the Year Award. In 2021, he was named Administrator of the Year by the New Mexico Association of Elementary Principals.

Education Week spoke to Romero about New Mexico’s literacy challenges: their origins, how state officials plan to tackle them, and where the free, intensive summer literacy program fits into the broader strategy.

How far back to these literacy problems go, and to what do you attribute them?

The pandemic did a number on students in New Mexico, but this problem isn’t anything new. When we look at how learning starts, even as early as kindergarten there’s concern, as the majority of our state’s students come into the system as 5-year-olds below grade level. Many times, they’re up to 18 months behind. So we’re starting from a deficit model from the beginning. A lot of our families don’t have access to preliteracy opportunities, like home libraries. They’re not reading to children and exposing them to things like museums.

It sounds like efforts to address literacy need to start before children reach kindergarten.

Yes; there are many other pieces to this puzzle. We are doing a lot to make sure all students across New Mexico have access to early literacy. We’re working closely with partners to make this happen. Early Childhood Education and Care Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky has done amazing work in this area, including expanding access to full-day pre-K, spearheading the adoption of an early-literacy curriculum across New Mexico to expose children as early as 3 and 4 years of age, connecting directly with families to provide support for them, and working with public libraries and tribal libraries to bring more access to texts for families.

Then, of course, there’s the K-12 piece.

That’s right. And New Mexico has wholeheartedly adopted the science of reading approach to literacy. We’ve been training teachers and preservice teachers to make sure they are ready to teach structured literacy in the classroom. We’ve completed training of kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers, and are doing 4th grade teachers now. Our current statewide initiative ensures that we can also train middle school teachers.

We are even providing training in structured literacy for school board members so they can realize the importance of this.

Are you seeing any progress yet?

We can see tremendous progress in districts that have fully implemented this evidence-based literacy approach (preliminary statewide data revealed a 4.3 percent jump in reading proficiency for 3rd–8th grade students last year).

What are the challenges in this work to improve literacy?

We have seen some disconnect around implementation. Leadership needs to know how important it is, how it works, and how to implement training around the structured literacy approach.

What’s next?

We want to make sure the work continues. We are working with incoming teachers, all public universities across New Mexico to make sure that structured literacy instruction is built into the [teacher-prep] curriculum. The New Mexico Public Education Department is a partner of the New Mexico Literacy Institute, which serves as a connection between higher ed. and public schools and also to the other side—parents and families. It’s going to take time to get an actual physical building in place to house the institute, a place we envision parents being able to go for literacy support and testing.

Are you modeling New Mexico’s literacy initiative after any existing ones?

We’ve visited many other states and districts that have successfully created broad programs that link research to K-12 education and family support, including Florida and Philadelphia. We know what their results are, and we want to be able to replicate them.

Can you share details of the free summer reading program?

Our goal is to serve 10,000 incoming K-9 students in the area of structured literacy. It will run four to six weeks, five days a week, in a 4:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Next week, we’ll start training instructors.

Who will the instructors be?

We are looking for individuals who work with students in some capacity. Many are teachers, after-school employees, private day-care providers—lots of wonderful people already connected with kids. Some will be teachers. We’ll also have retired educators. It’s really also a great opportunity for preservice teachers to get a huge jumpstart on [preservice teaching] experience. All instructors will be paid $35 per hour, and they’ll receive training by literacy experts prior to the program.

How is enrollment shaping up?

We need about 2,500 instructors to maintain our small group ratio of one teacher to four students. Right now, we’re at about 2,000. And we have 6,500 students enrolled. We’re confident we’ll get to our goal of 10,000 students. We are getting the word out through different means—local media outlets, billboards, etc.—it’s been a great group effort. We’re reaching a lot of families. We’re getting hundreds of calls about the program every day.

What is the end goal for each of the students who participate in the summer reading program?

Our reading proficiency in New Mexico is 38 percent [according to statistics from New Mexico’s Public Education Department].
We want to dramatically increase that. This is a start.

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