Editorial: Reading should be top priority for students

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free."

— Civil rights champion Frederick Douglass

C oaches bring strategy, focus and inspiration to the game. It's hard to imagine a team succeeding without a good coach who can produce a gameplan, identify areas of vulnerability and then fortify them.

So a recent effort to add more coaches to New Mexico's public school system is welcome — especially since Gov. Susana Martinez is pushing for more reading coaches in elementary schools.

"Learning to read is the key to success, and it can often determine whether a student grows up frustrated and discouraged or empowered and confident," Martinez said in announcing her "New Mexico Reads to Lead" program on April 16.

Like most government initiatives, the Martinez plan is open to criticism.

Adding 52 reading coaches for 100,000 students is not nearly all that's required to elevate the 80 percent of New Mexico fourth-graders Martinez claims are not reading proficiently today.

But it will help and, perhaps more importantly, reminds us all that teaching children to read is far and away the highest priority in our public schools.

Teach a child to read and that child has a chance to do anything imaginable after that, including learn on their own.

Dennis Roch, assistant superintendent at Texico schools and a state legislator, has heard educators speculate that New Mexico's prison system can plan on future cell needs based on how many fourth-graders can read today.

Sounds like a logical indicator to us.

For the record, Roch, Portales Superintendent Randy Fowler and many others doubt the governor's claim that 80 percent of fourth graders do not read proficiently.

The number is closer to 50 percent, depending on standards applied, Roch said.

Whatever the details, Roch said the governor's dedicating $8.5 million for early-childhood reading reforms is welcome and necessary.

"I don't want this to come across as teachers are shirking their responsibility. They're not," Roch said.

The idea of employing reading coaches, already in place across the state, is for teachers to learn new strategies; to help students who don't respond to methods that work with most.

Kids with learning disabilities, physical challenges and language barriers can all be strong readers when educators are able to find ways around the barriers.

Reading coaches can help target students who learn in different ways.

Fowler agrees teaching reading to students in kindergarten through third grade is essential to any school district's success.

"This is not a new concept. It's been our main focus for many, many years," he said.

Fowler, like most school administrators, prefers the state provide money and let the district apply it to areas of greatest need; federal funding already provides for academic coaches and intervention, he said.

As we've noted, "New Mexico Reads to Lead" can be easily criticized. It offers only a fraction of the help our public education system needs to resolve its multiple woes, which money cannot always fix.

But it's good to know the governor understands that success on all avenues of life begins with children learning to read.

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