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Bonnie Short (YLF ’91) helps Alabama students gain ground in literacy

Bonnie Short has good news to share about Alabama’s success in teaching young children to read: The 2022 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP)—the nation’s report card—showed that “our fourth-grade students made gains in literacy while almost every other state declined,” she says. That’s a welcome improvement from the NAEP’s previous report from three years earlier, which ranked Alabama fourth-graders 49th in reading.

Short is quick to credit the turnaround to the hard work of teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators in school systems across the state. But every strong team also includes a skillful coach, and that’s what Short is—an academic coach. As director of the Alabama Reading Initiative for the Alabama State Department of Education, Short oversees literacy education for students in kindergarten through third grade. That means she leads a network of educators who ensure that each school has the information, resources, and techniques to implement best practices for teaching literacy. It’s a role she has been preparing for since she was a participant in Youth Leadership Forum (YLF), as a junior representing Pinson Valley High School.

Questions and stories

“Are you a conformist or a nonconformist?” Short vividly recalls being asked that question in an interview during the YLF selection process. It wasn’t a question she typically pondered, and she wondered if there was a right answer. Was it good or bad to be one or the other? Ultimately, Short told the interviewer that she was both a conformist and a nonconformist, because sometimes following a tried and true path leads to the best outcome, and at other moments it’s important to step up and speak out.

Reflecting on that query today, Short says she has noticed that “when you are selective and speak up about things that matter, people listen and take you seriously. So I try to make sure that the things I speak up about will make the greatest impact and do the greatest good.”

The YLF interview introduced the first of many big, open-ended questions that made Short and her fellow students think deeply as they learned about the region and its key issues. Today she has made those kinds of questions a foundation of her academic coaching. “My job is to empower other people,” Short says. Asking flexible, thought-provoking questions prompts educators to pause and reflect, consider their goals, and make their own decisions about approaches that will benefit the children.

Other YLF experiences illuminated the value of seeking out different perspectives. “I think about when we went to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” Short says. “Growing up, I rarely was around anybody who was different from me and the way I looked. So hearing about the 1963 bombing at that tender age was emotionally impactful.” Short also enjoyed interacting with fellow YLF students from a variety of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Their year together taught her that every person has a unique perspective—and every situation has a story behind it.

Literacy Act impact

That long-ago insight has been at the top of Short’s mind as she and her team of 80 regional and local reading specialists help schools implement the Alabama Literacy Act. Passed in 2019, the law is designed to improve reading in public schools, with a specific focus on ensuring that students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. Gaining essential literacy skills by that age gives students a strong foundation for success with higher-level reading and in other school subjects including writing, science, social studies, and even math.

The legislation has channeled state resources toward literacy education and led to the creation of an array of programs to support reading growth among children (see Literacy Act sidebar). However, the act also has made headlines for mandating that third-grade students show proficiency in reading before they can be promoted to fourth grade—a requirement that goes into effect this school year.

The potential for retention has raised fears among some parents and school districts, Short says. “It’s important to listen to what people are feeling and realize that perception is someone’s reality,” she explains. Her response also is crucial. “I focus on truth and love,” Short says. “We need to be honest with parents about their child’s progress and not sugarcoat it, but then let them know that together we will come up with a plan to support their child.”

Short notes that third-grade students have multiple ways to demonstrate their reading skills in order to move on to fourth grade. First, they can pass the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP) summative, a test that gauges progress in achieving the state’s reading standards. Second, the students can receive reading support in the summer following third grade and then retake the ACAP. Third, teachers can create a portfolio of evidence to prove that a student is meeting the standards. Some students, including those who are relatively new English-language learners, can receive “good cause exemptions” for promotion to fourth grade.

Reading the future

The reading growth measured in the NAEP report shows that the Alabama Literacy Act is having a beneficial effect, Short says. The success is especially sweet considering that the rollout of programs tied to the Literacy Act—deployment of regional reading specialists, the implementation of a new course of study and intervention programs, assessments, and so forth—ran right into the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Short anticipates that the full impact of the Literacy Act will become evident in the next several years, which is a testament to the work of educators across the state. “They are digging into the research, digging into professional learning, and taking opportunities to involve parents and meet their needs, all while trying to ensure that students receive the proper support,” she says. “I can’t thank them enough.”