Other articles by the same author
In case the oppressive heat and superhero movie binge wasn’t hint enough, summer is officially here. For many, the word is synonymous with boats, barbeques or bonfires. Fishing. Camping. But for Carol McGovern-Paine, the director of the Kent School Services Network, summer is just another opportunity to improve her schools.
This is exactly why, just before the Fourth of July, Paine found herself on a plane to Denver where she represented Kent County at a conference held by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. There, she met with representatives of the other 123 charter communities nationwide to discuss ways to assure that all students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
“One of the biggest predictors of high school dropout is a student not being able to read by the end of third grade,” Paine explains. “If students aren’t reading at the end of third grade...they’re not then reading to learn. They’re still learning to read. They fall behind.”
It was this disturbing fact that inspired the KSSN to respond last year when the Campaign asked communities to produce plans for action, addressing three key components that the Campaign says are the key to raising reading levels. The first is what Paine refers to as “Kindergarten readiness,” a focus on early childhood development.
“We need to make sure that students, by the time they come to either Pre-K or Kindergarten, are ready to go to school. That they’ve had good exposure to preschool opportunities that are rich and wonderful environments of learning.”
The second key component of the KSSN’s plan involves working closely with the West Michigan Literacy Center to provide students from low-income families with ample opportunities for summer learning. This effort, they hope, will help stem the so-called “summer slide,” the phenomenon where students, without proper mental stimulation over the long summer break, lose large chunks of what they’ve learned the year before. The slide effect is more prevalent in lower-income families.
The third and final component, and one that the KSSN is particularly focused on, is attendance – preventing what is known in education circles as chronic absence. A student is described as having chronic absence if they miss more than ten percent of the school year (about 18 days) whether the absence is excused or not. Paine believes that even that is too high. “Ideally, you go for five percent. So, less than nine [days]… We’re really trying to work closely with schools so that students are within the five percent.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. Kent County was one of just 27 member communities to be awarded with the Campaign’s pacesetter award, presented to communities who have made huge strides in any of the three component categories.
The nonprofit organization Attendance Works, out of Oakland, CA, has taken notice too. Paine spent several hours in Denver talking to Hedy Chang, the group’s director.
“I think very highly of Carol,” Chang says, “and [I’ve] followed her work over the years. She is fabulous, and I’ve been very impressed by the work of KSSN.”
The conference also included keynote speeches from Federal Education Secretary Arnie Duncan (speaking via satellite) and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who found time to attend between trips to cities ravaged by wild fires, still burning at the time. To Paine, the gesture was highly symbolic.
“He really is an education governor,” she said. “He is really pushing the envelope. And I think that’s one of the reasons the conference was held there.
Although the conference is already a month in the rear-view mirror, Paine isn’t ready for summer vacation just yet. An educator’s work is never done, and she is already looking to the future.
“We're going to continue to have everyone work together… to really make sure that we can move the needle on grade level reading,” she said. Even through the phone the excitement in her voice was obvious.
“We can really create an impact which ultimately will result in fewer students dropping out of high school, more children going on to college and careers, and being ready," says Paine. "That’s the ultimate goal.”
Brent first visited Grand Rapids as a High School student from the Detroit suburb of Clarkston. What started as a one-day trip to sample the brownies at Charlie's Crab quickly evolved into a passion for the Furniture City, and after graduating he moved out to West Michigan to attend Grand Valley State in 2010. He currently lives in Allendale as he pursues a degree in Film and Video. When not working or writing, Brent can often be found wandering downtown or lost in the woods.