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Whitmer budget would triple literacy coaches to help Michigan students read

The number of literacy coaches working in Michigan schools would triple under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget, a change that could yield huge benefits for Michigan school children, school officials said.

Whitmer’s budget plan, unveiled Tuesday, proposes a $24 million increase in spending for literacy experts to work with classroom teachers to improve reading methods.

That money would increase the number of literacy coaches in the state from 93 to 279. Under the proposed budget, the state would pick up the full tab for those coaches, instead of the current system in which local districts pay half the cost.

Analysis: Whitmer's budget banks on Michigan GOP backing one historic tax hike

The proposal is just that - a proposal. What happens to the Democratic governor’s budget when it reaches Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature is yet to be seen.

But efforts to improve early literacy have been a bipartisan priority in recent years. Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder began the literacy coach program. And both Whitmer and her Republican opponent in the gubernatorial campaign, Bill Schuette, pitched additional support for early reading efforts.

“This is great news,” said Naomi Norman, assistant superintendent of achievement and system support at Washtenaw Intermediate School District and a member of the Michigan PreK-12 Literacy Commission.

“It’s really valuable because it’s going to ensure every corner of the state has access to high-quality support for literacy.”

Early literacy is seen as a key to turning around Michigan’s flailing public schools. Only 44 percent of third-graders are reading at a proficient level. Next school year, third graders whose reading level is more than one grade behind state standards face the possibility of being held back a grade.

Related: See third-grade reading scores in your school 
Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down.

The state began to provide funding to intermediate school districts to help pay the salaries of literacy coaches in the 2015-16 school year. Some rural intermediate school districts, which provide regional support to individual schools and districts, haven’t been able to hire literacy coaches because they don’t have the money to pick up part of the salary, said Kelli Campbell, director of teaching and learning for Kent Intermediate School District.

Kent has 4.5 literacy coaches to serve schools with more than 100,000 students. “As excited as I am about having more literacy coaches in our county, I’m even more excited that parts of the state that haven’t had access to literacy coaches will get them,” Campbell said.

Campbell heard the news about Whitmer’s proposed tripling of literacy coaches Tuesday while attending an early literacy symposium in Kalamazoo. “When word spread, there were a lot of excited people,” Campbell said. “To know we’re going to invest more in professional learning to help teachers, that’s the right move.”

Finding ways to improve early literacy “is critically important because language and literacy in young children sets them up for success in so many avenues in life,” said Norman, the Washtenaw administrator. “There’s a correlation with students struggling with literacy at an early age and dropping out of high school.”

Boosting the number of literacy experts “is the anchor piece to recovering our educational system,” Norman said. “If we can get this one right, we can continue on to other areas.”

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