Savannah-Chatham County public schools are facing a reading crisis: Only 19.8% of students in grades 3 through 8 demonstrated proficiency on reading exams, according to the state’s latest reports.

The district’s new superintendent, Denise Watts, said improving that benchmark will be her major focus for the upcoming school year.

The tool that both she, Georgia lawmakers, and a county task force see as beneficial is a pedagogical focus called the “science of reading.” The teaching method focuses on systematic and diagnostic instruction in phonics, syllables and syntax. 

Denise Watts
Denise Watts

“Literacy is something that impacts every demographic of students in every municipality across our city and county,” said Watts. “And it’s what the state has put a stake in the ground and said that we have to focus on and I will be as your superintendent promoting literacy.”

Under a new county plan, schools are required to allocate a 120-minute “instructional block” for literacy in all grade levels. The plan also includes providing training for teachers on reading instruction and phonics.  

The district has the budget for six new literary specialists, yet by mid-July only one has been hired. Meanwhile, it’s unclear how quickly teachers can be trained on the new method.

Data: More children left behind 

The planned rapid restructuring of the curriculum comes after unprecedented decreases in statewide reading scores amidst the onset of the pandemic. 

According to the Education Recovery Scorecard, students in Georgia experienced a loss of over 4 months of math learning between 2019 and 2022 and almost two months of reading learning.

Approximately 24% of the 3rd through 8th-grade students in the state who took end-of-grade (EOG) reading assessments in 2018-19 were deemed to be beginning learners. After the pandemic, that number rose to 30.5%. 

The state describes “beginning learners” as students who have not yet demonstrated proficiency in the knowledge and skills necessary for their grade level. These students require significant academic support to catch up with their peers. 

In Savannah-Chatham County, 33.8% of students were beginning learners. After the pandemic, that number rose to 45.1%. 

A recent report by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) shows that third graders have experienced significant learning losses in reading due to the pandemic and are struggling to recover. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has found that these losses could have a significant impact on the lifetime earnings of K-12 students. In dollar terms that results in a potential decline of 1.6% in the present value of their earnings, or $19,400 per student, or roughly a total of $900 billion for the 48 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2020-21 school year.

Georgia lawmakers took a step to overhaul public school standards this spring as a way to remedy these shortcomings. 

The so-called “Early Literacy Act,” which went into effect in July, requires students in kindergarten through third grade to undergo universal reading screening multiple times a year. 

The law also requires students with significant reading deficiencies to receive tiered reading intervention plans, and early childcare providers will receive evidence-based literacy instruction training in line with a uniform standard for measuring literacy. 

Lawmakers also created the Georgia Council on Literacy, which will be made up of 30 members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the state House of Representatives.The council will be responsible for conducting comprehensive reviews of birth to postsecondary programs and support for such programs, and addressing other related issues that impact literacy outcomes.

The science of reading

Georgia teachers will now be retrained in two teaching methods: the science of reading and structured literacy. 

“Structured literacy” is an evidence-based approach to teaching oral and written language that involves explicit, systematic, cumulative and diagnostic instruction in phonology, sound-symbol association, syllable instruction, morphology, syntax and semantics.

Mississippi educators applied these approaches more than a decade ago and as a result the state jumped to 21st in national reading assessments in 2022, from 49th place in 2013. 

Georgia is among the 32 states and the District of Columbia that have implemented “science of reading” laws. 

According to Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), adopting science-based reading in Georgia is a positive development as it can benefit all students, regardless of their race, but it is essential to prioritize pre-service preparation.

“We know in Georgia that programs are providing very little preparation to teachers in how to teach a range of students who have diverse needs and learning to read,” Peske said. 

Researchers say that the returns gained from the methodology are dependent on how much school districts invest to train teachers. 

The NCTQ report revealed that 25% of programs adequately cover all five core components of scientifically based reading instruction, and another 25% do not adequately cover even a single component. Many programs still teach multiple instructional practices that run counter to the research on effective reading instruction. 

Two out of three programs fail to adequately address phonics which researchers say is the foundation for reading, the report said.

Peske also sees that a lack of time contributes to complications with literacy outcomes, especially in schools where significant numbers of children have English as a second language. “English language learners are one of the fastest growing populations of students in our schools. We found that 71% of the programs we analyzed spend fewer than two instructional hours supporting the reading needs of English language learners,” she said.

How to teach cultural differences? 

Another area to watch, literacy experts say, is how teachers are trained to acknowledge and adapt to school children who speak dialects that are not considered mainstream English, such as Black children or others from minority backgrounds.

This is a significant concern since the teaching staff composition in the Savannah-Chatham schools is not representative of its predominantly Black student population. The Savannah Morning News reported in 2021 that only 38% of middle school and 35% of special education teachers are Black, while the figure stood at 35% for teachers in grades 1-5. 

Research shows that having one Black teacher in elementary school makes children more likely to graduate high school and significantly more likely to enroll in college.

This disconnect between educators and students can be seen in discrepancies of test scores. Black students in Chatham County who scored proficient in reading on the EOG in 2022 was 21.1%, while 41.1% were classified as beginning learners. In contrast, 38.3% of white students scored proficient, with 17.7% considered beginning learners.

Peske said that the test scores for students do not reflect their potential, but rather the lack of training among teachers. 

“The fact that fewer than half of fourth grade, Black students in Georgia at proficient levels is a real signal and a real compelling urgent action that we need to take to ensure that teachers are prepared to teach all students in Georgia,” she said.

Where will the money come from?

Watts, the Savannah-Chatham school superintendent, says that the district will prioritize teacher training in “science of reading.”  

Aside from training, insufficient funding also presents a major obstacle for Chatham County to effectively address literacy rates. 

Georgia’s new literacy law does not include a funding source for implementing the science of reading tools, including materials and supplies, teacher training and salaries for reading instructional specialists.

The new state literacy committee, meanwhile, is supposed to study the amount of state resources to devote to improving educational and literacy outcomes. 

This study would set recommended priorities for future investments and strategies but does not specify any particular funding amounts or sources.

Stephen Owens, the education director at GBPI, says Georgia trails the nation in budgets for education. He says the state funds schools at about $1,700 less per pupil than the national average

Owens says that the lack of specificity on how funds will be directed to literacy is troubling, especially considering that poorer school districts are likely to need more training and more resources for failing literacy rates.

“Schools are just kind of left with more needs and resources overall,” he said.  

Jabari Gibbs, from Atlanta, Georgia, is a senior at Georgia Southern University.  Majoring in communications, he is the Editor-in-Chief for The George-Anne Inkwell.  His investigative pieces have led...