By EVAN JONES
Capital News Service
LANSING — When lawmakers recently took the first steps to resolve a school budget impasse, they agreed to expand a program that intensively coaches elementary students to read.
The program provides literacy coaches for intermediate school districts. They collaborate with teachers on strategies and best practices to ensure more students learn to read.
Activities vary, and study sessions may involve part or all of the classroom.
The House and Senate both passed the school aid budget Sept. 18 which went to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk.
Both the governor and Legislature want to triple the number coaches, but the legislation requires school districts to match half of that funding.
That puts a burden on local school districts because that money would come from the school’s own general fund, said William Miller, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators.
“It’s very impactful,” he said. “It does put a strain on their budget.”
Funding levels are crucial to ensuring the best readership across the state, said Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
The state’s literacy coach program is ripe for expansion, she said.
There are 93 full-time literacy coach positions across the state’s 56 intermediate school districts, said Brandy Archer, the literacy manager at the Department of Education.
More than 50 other coaches are part-time, according to Association of Intermediate School Administrators records.
Miller helped develop the literacy essentials used for in-person and online modules for students and coaches. The online curriculum is free.
The modules are supposed to ease travel time for coaches in areas like the eastern Upper Peninsula, where the state’s largest intermediate school district encompasses three counties.
“They’re on the road more than they’re with kids,” Smith said. “The idea that two [coaches] per ISD is going to help is off-base.”
Copper Country Intermediate School District based in Hancock has only one full-time coach across a similar area, said Carla Strome, the general education director for that district.
Some school districts in Copper Country are farther than an hour apart, an inevitable waste of time, she said.
One solution in place is to select local literacy leaders in specific buildings to develop readership locally, she said.
“There’s always so many more things that you can do if you have additional people in place,” Strome said.
Still, Strome said, scores for kindergarten through second-grade students have already improved in districts with just one full-time coach.
State officials have focused on that age group for literacy improvements because of Michigan’s 2016 law requiring students learn to read by the third grade or be retained.
“The scores should get better and better as we go,” Strome said.
She said while the teachers have a great understanding of education theory, the coaches have expertise in implementing literacy standards.
Miller said the intermediate school organization is moving toward reducing the in-person training workshops to two days instead of four to further ease burdens on literacy coaches in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
“We’ll take what we can get right now and figure out ways to make it work,” Strome said.