How Hamilton County Schools is combating racial disparities in literacy

A third grader at Battle Academy double-underlined a word in an article about beetles that can survive being eaten by frogs. At the end of their journey through the frog's digestive system, the beetle crawls out of the frog's butt, the article said. The underlined word? Butt, of course.

The student is among 5,300 Hamilton County students in grades K-8 participating in Summer Reach, a literacy and tutoring program that Hamilton County Schools is offering for a third summer to combat declining literacy rates and literacy disparities worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have to make reading fun. And what's better than reading about frog butts?" Breckan Duckworth, literacy officer for Hamilton County Schools, said in an interview.

While national reading proficiency rates have dipped, Hamilton County Schools' have remained steady, and third-grade literacy has actually seen an increase.

"We have made significant changes to our literacy curriculum across the board, K-12. But particularly for K-5, we have a very comprehensive curriculum that we have adopted," Yvette Stewart, Hamilton County Schools' director of elementary teaching and learning and K-12 literacy, said in an interview.

Between 2019 and 2021, during the height of the pandemic, Hamilton County's third-grade reading proficiency increased from 35.6% to 36.2%, according to district data - and that's higher than average.

Hamilton County beat both statewide third-grade literacy rates of 34% and the national rate of 35%. The district is far outperforming Metro Nashville Public Schools' literacy rate of 22%.

Reading proficiency across all grade levels in Hamilton County dropped 2.5% between 2019 and 2021, but that compares to a 5% decrease at the state level.


While the district's third-grade literacy rates fare above average, stark disparities exist between white students and students of color.

According to the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's recent State of Black Chattanooga report, which analyzed Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing scores by race, one thing is clear: White students are outperforming Black and Latino students.

When it comes to literacy, third grade is a particularly important milestone, state education officials say. It's the time when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Those who aren't proficient will fall behind in all subjects which, in fourth grade and beyond, require more textual analysis and abstract word comprehension.

"Literacy in third grade is just a really important factor that's looked at on a national level as far as how students are performing," Duckworth said in a phone call.

"The further behind they are at third grade, a lot of times kids just start to slip further and further behind. And so, we really want to make sure that all kids are on grade level by that third-grade marker," she said.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, reading proficiency in third grade is also correlated with high school completion, as 1 in 6 children who are not reading proficiently by third grade will not graduate from high school.

The Urban League's study revealed that, among third graders, Black students have the lowest literacy proficiency rates in Hamilton County, 17.2%. They're followed by Latino students with a 21.2% proficiency rate.

"We do see that often our students of color are not performing as well as our white students, particularly our more affluent white students," Duckworth said. "We know that they need additional support. And so, we've really been working on providing them that additional time, more access to text, making sure they have more access to words."

The three poorest performing schools for third-grade literacy in Hamilton County serve large populations of economically disadvantaged students of color.

East Lake Elementary, the lowest-scoring school, showed a reading proficiency rate of 5.9% among all third graders and a proficiency rate of 5.6% for Latino students. There were 12 tests administered to Black students, but the Urban League's study shows no proficiency data for that group of students.

East Lake's total student body consists of 543 students, 78% of whom are Latino, 18% are Black and 55% are economically disadvantaged. Sixty-one percent of the student body consists of English language learners.

Tommie F. Brown Academy had the second-lowest literacy rate with 7.9% of all third graders reading proficiently. The school serves 281 students, 87.5% of whom are Black. Among all students, 66.5% are economically disadvantaged.

Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, the third-lowest scoring school, had a reading proficiency rate of 8.3%. Of its 420 students, 80% are Black and 16.4% are economically disadvantaged. More than 80% of the total student body is economically disadvantaged.

The three best-performing schools serve primarily white students, few of whom are economically disadvantaged.

Thrasher Elementary's third graders had the highest literacy rates in Hamilton County with 81.7% proficient. Of the school's 506 students, 87.7% are white, 6.9% are students of color, and less than 5% are economically disadvantaged.

Nolan Elementary showed a third-grade reading proficiency rate of 74.6%. The school is 88.3% white. Less than 5% of the student body are Black or Latino.

The third best performing school is Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, which has a more diverse student population. The reading proficiency rate among third graders is 73.7%. But the percentage of Black third-graders who tested at proficient levels is 18 percentage points lower than their white peers: 60% compared to 78%.


Part of the solution is Summer Reach, where at least 35% of children enrolled are economically disadvantaged. The program takes a multifaceted approach to literacy.

Students attend Summer Reach from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. They receive two hot meals, and transportation is provided for free. During their time, they participate in activities which may include STEM lessons, playing with Legos and even going on field trips.

"The two biggest things that you need to improve reading is you need those foundational skills. So, we're talking phonics, phonemic awareness being able to sound out (words). Then the next thing you need is background knowledge. So you need to be able to sound out the words to know what the word says," Duckworth said.

But then a student needs context, or lived experiences, to fully understand what words mean she said.

"We find that students who often do better at literacy, it's because they have a wide variety of experiences. They've been to more places, maybe they've traveled or they've seen things outside of their particular neighborhood. And, so, it's really important when we're talking about literacy instruction, we focus on foundational literacy skills. And then after that kids need access to learning social studies, science, visiting new places, and that's how you build their literacy."

Duckworth said activities, including playing with Legos, build vocabulary and a student's ability to comprehend more of the things they read.

"We really got to focus on building experiences for our kids who may not get as many varied experiences," Duckworth said.

For students who aren't able to attend Summer Reach in person, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga has expanded its virtual tutoring program into the summer months. The program launched earlier this year.

"Urban League is providing for students who may not be able to make in-person programming. They're providing a Zoom online option that would happen after (Summer Reach) on Tuesdays or on Saturdays," Duckworth said.

Urban League's program focuses on foundational literacy skills training for children in grades 1, 2 and 3. The tutors are Hamilton County teachers or educators who have participated in the Tennessee Department of Education's Early Reading Training.

Sessions last 30 minutes, and the teaching is based on the Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement. Tutors work one-on-one or in small groups with no more than three students to assess and help them reach their individual literacy goals. The majority of students in the virtual program are students of color, Duckworth said.

"With our organization's long-standing focus on education, we wanted to be a greater part of the solution, specifically serving families where the most disparities exist," Candy Johnson, president and CEO of the Urban League, said in a news release. "Literacy rates correlate to everything from economic opportunity, better nutrition and overall better life outcomes."

Going forward, Duckworth said the district plans to address other aspects of students' lives that affect their reading ability.

"We also know that many of our students, particularly students in poverty, are needing extra social-emotional support. And that's where we're really looking this year to expand and ensure that we're providing personalization for all of our students, and really make sure that we are educating the whole child and not just focused on literacy," Duckworth said.

The district also instituted a new English language curriculum in 2020, which Stewart said helped increase third-grade literacy rates during the pandemic.

The curriculum was created by EL Education, a national nonprofit that partners with K-12 educators to transform public schools. Unlike the district's former English language program, EL Education focuses on phonics, Stewart said.

"Previously, we just had comprehension. It didn't focus so much on phonics, which really imbalances the curriculum or the opportunity for students to learn to read," Stewart said.

"EL gives teachers and students a comprehensive resource to teach literacy. So, there's phonics decoding, just learning what sounds and letters create words. And then the comprehension piece is once you have a foundational knowledge of how the English language is established, then you (can learn) to read and then you're able to comprehend text," Stewart said.

Though the district has more work to do, Stewart said the new curriculum has already started closing gaps.

"We are seeing that our students are doing much better. We are addressing (racial disparities). It doesn't matter what socioeconomic status, what race you are, where you go to school. It doesn't matter now, because every school building in our district, K-5, has this curriculum in their hands," Stewart said.

Literacy is trending upward, Stewart said, and she predicts a significant improvement in the coming years.

"Bottom line is we've got to do better by our kids," Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson said in an interview.

"And when we talk about creating an equitable school system, part of that is acknowledging the fact that we have student populations who aren't getting served the way that they should. That barrier, it could be poverty. It could be a student with a disability. It could be a student that's coming in that doesn't speak English. But we also have to recognize that a lot of our students of color have not performed as well as they should. It's not their fault. It's our responsibility to remove barriers for them to help them be successful."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.