How Black activists in Northern Virginia transformed the way children learn to read

First-graders sound out spelling words at Hunt Valley Elementary School in Springfield, Va., on Nov. 18. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va.

For years, the Fairfax County NAACP’s small education committee devoted itself mostly to fights over Confederate school names and acts of racism against individual students. It waged battles that mattered for some, “but rarely made us feel like we were having a profound impact on the system,” says Sujatha Hampton, who became chair of the committee in 2019.

That changed in the summer of 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, committee membership exploded. By 2021, it had committed to its most ambitious goal yet: overhauling the way Fairfax County Public Schools teaches students to read and supports struggling readers. The gap in reading pass rates between Black and White students was nearly 20 percentage points — a discrepancy that has persisted since the district first made “minority achievement” a priority in 1984.

In a virtual meeting that March with Fairfax’s school district leaders, Hampton says, she said the NAACP would “flood the internet with your poor reading scores for Black and Brown students if you don’t take this seriously.” The cause, as activists saw it, was partly “the absence of systematic, cumulative, phonics-based reading instruction in the early elementary classroom,” they later wrote in an open letter. “All the research suggests that this shift would have the most immediate and profound impact on closing the achievement gap.” Some teachers had always incorporated phonics — intentionally sequenced lessons in how to sound out words from letters — but the district had not made it a requirement.

School district leaders committed to radical and swift change. And this past school year, dozens of elementary school administrators started training in LETRS, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which says it teaches them the “science of reading,” including how students learn to “decode” letters on the page and form meaning from words. The district gave all kindergarten through second-grade teachers scripted lesson plans featuring phonics. They were told to implement them immediately.

The letter provided the “catalyst” for rapid change, says Noel Klimenko, assistant superintendent for instructional services for FCPS. “It has been controversial,” she adds, “and nonoptional.”

The Fairfax group, and its neighboring chapter in Arlington, Va., are among a growing number of NAACP organizations that have in recent years turned their attention to how reading is taught in school. They are part of a nationwide movement to embrace what cognitive science shows us about how students learn to read, particularly about the role of phonics — and they see this as a path toward social justice. Literacy separating “secure v insecure, access v exclusion, captive v free” is a modern Mason-Dixon Line, argues Kareem Weaver, an Oakland, Calif.-based educator and the education lead of the city’s NAACP chapter. He and a growing number of other activists and parents see reading as a defining civil rights priority of the 21st century.

In Emily VanDerhoff’s first-grade classroom this fall, Fairfax students have mastered consonant-vowel-consonant words: cat, bed, dog. It is the second year that VanDerhoff feels like she is fully incorporating “evidence-based” practices.

A few years ago, she taught reading skills very differently. For example, she might have read a book such as “What Is at the Zoo?” in which each page follows a predictable pattern: Are there elephants at the zoo? Yes, there are. Are there giraffes at the zoo? Yes, there are. The students wouldn’t have learned enough phonics to be able to read words like “giraffe” and “elephant,” so they were expected to rely on the picture and the first letter to recognize or guess the words.

Some learned phonics partly on their own — or simply memorized different letter patterns. But “those that didn’t learn to recognize longer and more complex patterns fell off a cliff in third grade,” VanDerhoff says. “There aren’t pictures anymore then.” Inequities were visible in which children sought outside (and usually expensive) help. VanDerhoff, a member of the NAACP’s education committee, altered her approach even before the district announced its change.

How dyslexia became a social justice issue for Black parents

Nobody in Hampton’s family struggled to read. Her son learned on his own by age 2, and Hampton, who is Indian American and whose husband is Black, made sure her daughter could read fluently before the child started preschool. “I was not going to have a Black child going to school without knowing how to read,” she says. “I could not take the risk that the school would not see her as smart enough — or not smart at all.” She says she feels fortunate that it was a relatively easy path for both her kids.

Still, while she worked toward her master’s degree in special education, Hampton taught many youths who had been labeled as “emotionally disturbed” — almost all of whom, she says, were Black and struggled with reading. So Hampton taught herself how to teach phonics, and she devoted much of her time to tutoring her students in reading. “As soon as they learned to read, a lot of troubling behaviors disappeared,” she says.

When Hampton took the helm of the NAACP’s education committee over three years ago, she wanted to focus on structural inequality, not just incidents of racism. The committee pushed to change the admissions system for the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology magnet school, for instance, to broaden access for Black and Hispanic students.

In 2020, after committee membership reached an all-time high, a White Fairfax mother spoke up at one of the Zoom meetings. Her family had spent more than $20,000 on private language therapy to help her son, who has dyslexia, learn to read. She worried about the disproportionate impact felt by Black and Hispanic children, noting that universal access to stronger reading instruction might be the most effective way to narrow the yawning racial achievement gap in reading results.

“She was a White woman with White children but framed it in racial equity terms,” Hampton says. “We felt like we could get behind it and know that we were taking care of our kids.” (The mother did not want to be identified to protect the privacy of her son.)

The NAACP linked up with two other organizations — Decoding Dyslexia Virginia and the Fairfax County Special Education PTA — to push for change. The three groups spent the late fall and early winter of 2020 coordinating their efforts, strategizing on messaging and plotting a heavy-handed appeal to the district. (They followed up on the NAACP’s literacy letter in spring of 2021 with a joint missive to the district.) “We really picked up steam when the organizations joined forces,” says Diane Cooper-Gould, a founder and advocacy co-chair of the Special Education PTA and a parent of a student with dyslexia. Before that, “we were making very, very slow headway,” she says.

“We shouldn’t be able to look at a group of kindergartners and know in six years who is not going to be reading, based on race.”
— Carrie Leestma, Fairfax schools education specialist

Hampton knew that the opportunity to effect change probably would be limited, since school district leaders would ultimately shift their focus away from racial justice issues. “We had a window of interest,” she says, “and we tried to make sure we capitalized on it.”

The FCPS superintendent at the time, Scott Brabrand, who left the school district this past summer and now serves as executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, declined to comment. But other district officials say the combined pressure from the groups, and particularly the NAACP, was critical to engendering change. “I don’t think that without the outside push and the NAACP letter we would have made as rapid a shift,” says Carrie Leestma, an education specialist for the district who until recently focused entirely on dyslexia.

As a onetime special education teacher, Leestma had regularly encountered teenagers who struggled to read. She recalls one 15-year-old who had been held back and was reading at a second-grade level in eighth grade. Looking at his file, she worried about his options in life. “Within a couple of months, he was arrested, and he’s still in jail now,” she says.

“We shouldn’t be able to look at a group of kindergartners and know in six years who is not going to be reading, based on race,” Leestma adds.

Symone Walker, co-chair of Arlington’s NAACP education committee, sent a similar letter to Arlington Public Schools as the one that engendered change in Fairfax. Walker became an advocate after her travails in getting her son, Jackson, help with reading in Arlington Public Schools. Despite persistent struggles, Jackson, now 17, did not get diagnosed with dyslexia until the summer before eighth grade. (Jackson is being referred to by his middle name to protect his privacy.)

“I’m a lawyer, and I’m educated,” Walker says. “But when it came to my own child, I felt vulnerable and lost and overwhelmed.”

Jackson’s teachers blamed his early difficulties with reading on his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. She treated it with medication, but he continued to struggle with reading. “If a teacher asked me to read something on the board, I wouldn’t want to because I knew that I struggled more than other kids,” Jackson says.

Throughout elementary school, Jackson’s teachers repeatedly dismissed the family’s concerns, a nonchalance that Walker attributes at least partly to the fact that “there are lower expectations for Black kids and what they are capable of doing. So they weren’t alarmed that he couldn’t read in first or second grade.” In fourth grade, Jackson started getting some individual help, but the school refused to specify in his individualized education program (or IEP) what reading remediation program they were using, despite his mother’s repeated requests. “I don’t think I got the proper help I actually needed,” Jackson says.

As the years progressed, teachers passed Jackson along, and he received mostly good grades but still floundered with reading. He struggled to sound out and recognize words, and he frequently had to guess based on context. By middle school, Jackson says, he started to despair of ever catching up. “It felt like I wasn’t progressing,” he says.

Seventh grade was pivotal. Toward the end of the year, educators told his mother they no longer thought he needed special education services — “they literally congratulated me,” she says — despite the fact he couldn’t read well. That summer, Walker arranged to have Jackson evaluated independently. “It was bleak,” she says of the diagnosis. Jackson read several years behind his grade level; he was severely dyslexic and required intensive help that he had never received in school.

Although Walker accepted the diagnosis, she notes that other relatives, including Jackson’s father, were more resistant initially — a hesitancy she and several others say is common in Black communities. “I see a reluctance in a lot of Black families in not wanting to acknowledge or talk about learning disabilities,” she says. “There’s a hesitation to take on the additional stigma. … Daily, we fight microaggressions and negative stereotypes that we are not ‘good enough’ and not ‘smart enough.’”

In eighth grade, still lacking sufficient academic help, Jackson began to act out, throwing paper and stalking around the classroom. “I started to get emails about disruptive behavior,” Walker says.

Jackson says he was frustrated academically but also was “naturally a class clown.”

“You weren’t born a class clown. You became a class clown,” his mother replies.

Jackson thinks this over; he mostly agrees. “I think a lot of it had to do with the reading. I do,” he says.

Walker knew that the odds of Jackson getting referred to the police or criminal justice system were much higher than for White students with similar behaviors in school. “The school-to-prison pipeline became real for me,” she says. As Jackson finished eighth grade, Walker, along with education committee co-chair Sherrice Kerns, sent the NAACP letter to Arlington, hoping it might help prevent other families, and particularly families of color, from experiencing the despair and frustration she felt over her son’s struggles in school.

She also took out a home-equity loan so she could afford to send Jackson to the Siena School, a private program in Silver Spring, Md., focused on kids with dyslexia — even though it meant a 90-mile round-trip drive each weekday.

Superintendent Francisco Durán, new to Arlington Public Schools in the spring of 2020, was “open and willing” to embrace reading reforms, but Walker knew any changes would be too late to help her now-high-school-age son. At Siena, in contrast, Jackson says, he felt like “every single teacher was helpful,” and he began to progress. For the first time, he began talking about graduating from high school and someday attending college.

The decision hasn’t been an easy one financially, Walker says. But “I thought it was a matter of saving my son’s life.”

However well done, phonics alone is insufficient. More than 20 years ago, the National Reading Panel endorsed the efficacy of phonics if taught early, systematically and alongside other key elements of teaching literacy, including an emphasis on understanding spoken language. Put together, all these elements are referred to as the “science of reading.”

But for many years, a few literacy experts and authors who downplayed the importance of explicit phonics instruction held sway over both teachers’ colleges and the curriculums that classrooms used for millions of kids. Some educators have long been among the main opponents to reading reform, reluctant to go against their own training and ingrained practice.

“It can be a shock for people who first come across the science of reading. It takes everything you’ve been doing and says, ‘That’s not what science supports.’ ”
— Emily VanDerhoff, Fairfax schools first-grade teacher

One reason for the enduring resistance is that many children learn how to read without extensive phonics instruction. And some key leaders in the field are just becoming aware of how many children struggle without it — and the vast inequities that can result.

That growing awareness is leading to change. A new Virginia state law, for instance, will require all school districts to adopt curriculums aligned with the science of reading, among other changes. Many other states have made similar reforms, including Mississippi, Delaware and North Carolina.

In Fairfax County, Klimenko says the district faced reluctance from several teachers and administrators who were accustomed to other methods. But that hesitancy is diminishing — especially as educators realize they are not shifting to a phonics-only approach. VanDerhoff, the teacher, says some resistance comes from teachers “needing time and support to adjust to the changes, and not having enough of it.”

“It can be a shock for people who first come across the science of reading,” she adds. “It takes everything you’ve been doing and says, ‘That’s not what science supports.’ ”

VanDerhoff is in a group of teachers participating in the LETRS training, which can take up to 180 hours. This past school year, more than 300 Fairfax administrators and teachers received LETRS training, with upward of 200 more expected to do so this year. More than 1,000 teachers have also had training in Orton-Gillingham, which is popular for struggling readers because of the explicit instruction on the connection between letters and sounds.

Yet Fairfax County Public Schools employs more than 6,500 elementary teachers (and that’s not including ones who teach subjects such as art, music and gym), meaning the training has reached just a fraction. Still, 98 percent of school literacy specialists, who provide support and expertise to classroom teachers, have been trained or will be this year, according to the district.

Arlington, a much smaller district, has been following a similar path. Superintendent Durán arrived in 2020 already in favor of transforming reading instruction. Over the next two years, the district focused on kindergarten through third grade, training reading specialists in LETRS and providing early-elementary-school teachers with a curriculum that emphasizes phonics. More recently, the work extended to fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, according to Durán.

“Students who are struggling with reading need very explicit phonics instruction,” Durán says. When that’s not present, “it’s our students of color, our English learners, and our students with disabilities who get most lost,” he adds.

In Arlington, early results have been positive, with a 20 percent decrease in the number of students needing intensive reading intervention in the early elementary grades, Durán says. In Fairfax, Klimenko says, the district does not yet have any quantitative evidence of the changes’ impact, but anecdotal reports have been positive.

In both districts, the plan is to eventually touch every grade — kindergarten through high school — with a changed approach to literacy. Part of that work will be swooping in to help high school students who are not reading at grade level, Durán says. He acknowledges that “we haven’t gotten there yet.”

And until they do, Walker says, the NAACP will not be taking literacy reform off its list of priorities. “Those kids who are like my son that got failed up to high school and moved along semiliterate, there is no easy path for them,” she says.

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Her son’s success at Siena is bittersweet: Jackson is happy there, but the family wishes he could go to a more diverse high school. The teen had long dreamed of attending a large neighborhood high school where he could play sports and participate in an array of extracurriculars.

His restored confidence has been worth the sacrifice, however. Walker’s main regret now is that she didn’t know more — and therefore do more — earlier in Jackson’s education. She will work for as long as it takes to ensure other families, and particularly families of color, aren’t left playing catch-up. “I’m doing this for my grandkids,” she says of the right to read. “I see it as basic as a right to clean water.”

This article was produced in cooperation with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Carr reported this story as an O’Brien fellow in public service journalism at Marquette University.

Story editing by Adam B. Kushner and Christina Samuels. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Paola Ruano. Design by J.C. Reed.

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