Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Teacher Elisabeth Baird, right, calls on Paityn Terry, 6, as they work with Lego bricks at Battle Academy on June 7.

"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 a recent interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

We can imagine that made some sleepy readers' eyes widen before they eased into a smile Monday morning.

But before a bunch of Moms for Liberty (or should it be Moms for Unliberty?) go whining to the book banners on the school board, consider the context:

While national reading proficiency rates have dipped, Hamilton County Schools' have remained mostly steady, and third-grade literacy has actually seen an increase — even while those scores slumped statewide. That's in part thanks to the school system's literacy program and Summer Reach tutoring system that began here three years ago.

"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.

Thus, one third-grader whom the TFP recently watched during a day at a Summer Reach class (about 5,300 local students are in the K-8 program) double-underlined a word in an article about beetles that can survive being eaten by frogs. Our reporter wrote: "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 [student's] underlined word? Butt, of course."

That's when literacy officer Duckworth put her own fine line on things: To make reading fun, "what's better than reading about frog butts?"

Here's this mom's fine line. How many times have most of us called to our 10-year-old: "Get you're butt over here, now."

Duckworth says the literacy teaching relies on the three biggies of learning to read and improving reading:

— Teaching phonics, which is the ability to sound out words

— Having or expanding background knowledge; in other words, vocabulary — because sounding out a word isn't particularly useful if one doesn't know the word or what it means

— Having context, or lived experiences to understand fully what the words mean

Most 10-year-olds — even 6-year-olds — have heard someone use the word butt. So understanding the word is a lived experience, they know it, and it's easy to sound out. What's more, reading that those beetles make it out of the frog to crawl another day makes youngsters' eyes widen, too. And that wide-eyed smile means reading is not only fun, it also gets easier and easier to understand.

As we stopped to think about the three necessary things for learning to read — phonics, vocabulary and context — we realized what our educators mean when they stress that improving literacy is often as much about equity as it is phonics.

It's not enough to just have the same teaching program and daytime learning opportunity in every K-3 classroom.

Some children, especially those who do not have a parent at home who talks to them a lot or reads to them daily or cannot afford to send or transport a child to a qualified daycare or pre-K program, will not have the same vocabulary as a student who has been read to every day from the time they were toddlers or before.

And children who did not visit a zoo or a park or a circus or — pick something — as a preschooler likely won't recognize an elephant, giraffe, deer, tiger or the many things pictured in early reading books

It's easy to blame parents, but all to often this is the difference between parenting in poverty and parenting with economic opportunity. That's what educators mean when they talk about educational "equity."

Just look at the literacy proficiency rates in Hamilton County, as measured by the Tennessee Department of Education and the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's recent State of Black Chattanooga report.

Hamilton County's three poorest performing schools for third-grade literacy (with proficiency rates of 5.9 to 8.3%) serve large populations of economically disadvantaged students of color — East Lake Elementary, Tommie F. Brown Academy and Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy.

The three best-performing schools (with proficiency rates of 73.7 to 81.7%) serve primarily white students, most from affluent families, and very few who are economically disadvantaged — Thrasher Elementary, Nolan Elementary and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

In 2020, the three-week Summer Reach intensive learning program was funded by $1.6 million provided to the school district by the Cares Act federal COVID-19 relief program, according to Hamilton County Department of Education's web site. That was the first relief program President Joe Biden's administration pushed and he signed into law.

In 2021, the program continued to be funded by both federal money (The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER, as part of Biden and Congress's American Rescue Plan) and state money. According to the Tennessee Department of Education's website, Tennessee received $4.2 billion for K-12 funding to be spent before 2024.

These are our children and our future. They are worth every single penny of this.

And the bonus? It's working.