July 19, 2013 11:39:32 AM
JACKSON -- State education officials will hire 24 reading coaches and coordinators for the coming school year, falling far short of their goal of 75.
The coaches are the key personnel in the state's effort to meet legislative mandates that all third-graders read at a basic level by 2015 or be flunked.
State Board of Education chairman Wayne Gann, of Corinth, said improving instruction and averting a large number of failures is one of the most urgent tasks facing the state Department of Education.
"We cannot allow ourselves to fail and we cannot allow the school districts to fail," he said.
The board is likely to approve hiring the employees today. Most will be effectively loaned to the state from local school districts as educators-in-residence. That means they could return to their home districts if state funds dry up, but districts don't have to guarantee positions.
Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said that although more than 500 people applied for the slots, few seemed to have the combination of literacy teaching experience and coaching of other adults the state was looking for.
"I'm sad we were not able to identify more coaches, but we're dedicated to ensuring the coaches have the skill set we need," House said.
Officials are trying to hire more coaches from among retired teachers, House said
The state will choose the lowest-performing schools in reading to host the coaches, aiming to have them in place before Labor Day, said Trecina Green, who's coordinating the effort for the state.
"We were focused on getting folks who had experience teaching students how to read and working with adults in some kind of teaching or mentoring capacity," Green said.
Gov. Phil Bryant had proposed $15 million for the program, but the Legislature cut that to $9.5 million. On that budget, the state education department had originally proposed to hire 40 coaches, later revising that number up to 75 after talks with the Barksdale Reading Institute and others. The private Barksdale group will pay for two regional coordinators in addition to those the state is hiring.
Even 75 would be far fewer coaches than Alabama and Florida have devoted to similar programs. Each of those states worked toward having a coach in every elementary school. Mississippi would need hundreds of coaches to match that level of effort, costing at least $25 million a year.
House said that coaches are "critically important," but said the department won't seek to stop the 2015 deadline. She says training programs will help. Because the state wasn't able to hire very many coaches, it will spend more on training, with a goal of training every K-3 teacher within three years.
"It's not like we're not doing anything to help students with reading," House said.
The state department will request $15 million for the program next year. It will also request the authority hire some people as direct employees, instead of contractors or loaned teachers. Green said some superintendents expressed concern about the educator-in-residence model, which may have led some teachers to back out.
The state intends to hire Kymyona Burk as its literacy director, paying her on contract. Burk was most recently director of professional development and training at Jackson State University's Mississippi Learning Institute.
Some districts are using their own money to hire additional coaches. House said the state's federal programs office forced school districts to justify their spending of federal money for the first time, in an effort to get districts to steer money to reading instruction. There are already 100 coaches of either reading instruction or both reading and math instruction in grades K-3 employed by 65 districts who responded to a state survey.
"We need to use all the money we can muster and encourage school districts to do likewise," Gann said. "They need to know how to creatively use federal funds that flow through."