First Lady Crissy Haslam speaks during the early literacy and early education discussion hosted by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership.
Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal

“Literacy attainment is the equity issue of our time,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen professed to a crowd of about 100 leaders in education and politics at the University of Memphis Thursday night.

It’s because of who is most affected by low literacy rates—children who are African American, Hispanic, and those with disabilities and for whom English is their second language—the state and local communities have to take a full-court-press approach to improving reading levels, McQueen said.

That strive to improve literacy, especially in a child’s first 1,000 days of life, is what’s pushing the Tennessee Department of Education to expand its involvement beyond the prekindergarten through higher education spectrum. 

The department this fall launched a training program for childcare workers to learn the best ways to expose children to books and learning basic reading skills years before their first day of school. The pilot program has 200 participating childcare centers across the state, including in Memphis.

“This has not been a conversation as far as I know in our state to date,” McQueen said after her speech. “Our work is to say, what happens in the day of the student that’s in the childcare center really does matter. That time is valuable time.”

McQueen’s appearance was part of an early literacy and early education discussion, hosted by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership, that also brought first lady Crissy Haslam to town. 

Shelby County Schools Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin and representatives from Porter Leath and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital also participated in a panel discussion about what each organization is doing to mitigate poor literacy rates in the county. 

In 2014, just 30 percent of SCS third-graders were reading on grade level. As part of Destination 2025, the district has a goal to have 90 percent of students that age reading on grade level by the year 2025.

SCS recently wrapped up its first Summer Learning Academy, enrolling more than 5,000 of the district’s most vulnerable students in a literacy-focused summer program. The district also just implemented a new language arts curriculum that exposes younger children to more complex texts. But work still needs to be done before children are 4 and 5 years old, Griffin said.

“I feel there are insufficient foundations when our children come to school,” she said. 

Haslam talked about why, as her husband focused on the Tennessee Promise and raising college graduation rates, she made early literacy her main focus the last seven years. It started with looking those same low rates of college graduation, but she traced that back to dropout rates, then to high school graduation rates, then third-grade reading levels. A child who isn’t reading on grade level by that year is four times more likely to drop out, she said. 

More: Haslam honors first Southwest students to graduate using Tennessee Promise

The problem, she realized, was starting before children even reached school.

“They had not been read to,” Haslam said. “They had not been prepared for kindergarten.”

She credited Memphis for leading the state in identifying toxic stress from adverse childhood experiences—a focus of the ACE Awareness Foundation—as the root cause of many children’s lack of development. 

Reading to children every day is key to overcoming that damage, Haslam said. Parents should be spending at least 20 minutes a day reading to their child and should enthusiastically encourage them to do their homework.

“For children with uninvolved parents, we can’t forget about them,” Haslam said. “They need encouragement, too.”

Reach Jennifer Pignolet at or on Twitter @JenPignolet. 


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