Efforts to Boost High School Graduation Must Begin Before Kindergarten

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has set audacious goals for our community’s public education system, beginning with this year’s second graders. He wants 80 percent of them to graduate high school “college and career-ready,” 90 percent overall to graduate, and 100 percent of those ready for college and careers to pursue higher education.

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These are high hurdles for educators in the school district. Today, only about six percent of Memphis seniors are considered college ready as defined by ACT scores. 40 percent of graduates don’t continue their education after High School. To his credit, Superintendent Hopson is undaunted, saying that “vision without execution is hallucination” and that the entire district is being aligned to achieve the new 80-90-100 goal.

The truth is that years before students enter a classroom, parents, grandparents, and caregivers are laying the foundation of reading skills and school readiness. A strong foundation of reading and school readiness skills greatly improves those children’s chances for success in school.

The second grade students targeted by Superintendent Hopson will graduate high school in 2025. They are the same cohort that we spotlighted in our Class of 2025 presentation. They were among the 15,167 children born in Shelby County in 2006. 7,825 children that year were born into families living in poverty. They were:

  • more likely to be raised in single parent homes
  • less likely to attend high-quality preschools
  • less likely to be read to at least three times a week
  • more likely to have weak early vocabulary development.

It was predicted that 4,045 of these at-risk students would eventually drop out of high school. Shelby County School’s goal is to reduce that number by almost two-thirds.

Literacy Develops Over Several Years

Success in school, throughout childhood, depends on strong reading skills developed during the first three years of a child’s life. Researchers have linked these first years to later academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates, and more productivity in adulthood.

The early language skills children learn in their first years are the precursors of understanding sounds, symbols, and meanings. They are crucial for learning to read, which is fundamental for school success.

As the National Research Council has said: “The majority of reading problems faced by today’s adolescents and adults are the result of problems that might have been avoided or resolved in early childhood years.”

It’s clear that activities during the first years of life affect how children learn reading skills. Early encounters with books, paper, crayons, and conversations with adults are important steps along the way. At first infants are content to look at pictures as pages turn, but soon they want to turn the pages. In the space of a few years, they are making up their own stories, and then recognizing letters and words.

Literacy Begins at Home.

There is a direct line between early language development and reading achievement in the classroom. In homes where parents have large vocabularies and engage children in conversations, children develop much larger vocabularies themselves. Even as young as age three, researchers have found dramatic differences in the size of children’s vocabularies that are the result of differences in the language environment of their homes. These differences strongly influence their likelihood of becoming early readers and their cognitive scores when they reach school.

The research is clear: a child born into a family of readers enjoys an advantage when it comes to learning to read. In a strong home language environment, adults read for pleasure, read aloud with their children, keep books and magazines around, and take their children to the library. Their children are likely to have an easier time learning to read than other children.

For one in three families in Memphis, however, reading is a challenge for parents, and they are much less likely to read with their young children. As we support the success of the 80-90-100 plan for the Class of 2025, it’s even more important that for future classes of students, we advocate and support early childhood reading skills to give them the best opportunity for success.