Chrissy Howard, the new manager of Reading Success by 4th Grade, sums up her job with a question:
“How can I use any resource I have to help other people get what they need?”
For Howard this a tactical issue and a matter of social justice.
Launched by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, Reading Success by 4th Grade has engaged the Springfield, Mass., community in the work of helping children become proficient readers by the end of third grade. The organization was led by Sally Fuller, who recently retired.
Howard joined the organization this summer just as it had found a new home at the Springfield Public Library.
“My job is to continue to bring people together and move the work forward,” Howard says. To do this, she has embarked on a listening tour where she has heard about what people need, want, and love as well as “what they found a little difficult; what challenges they’ve overcome, and how they did it together.”
So far, Howard has met with a diverse group that includes preschool, elementary school, and college educators, a parent advisory group, library staff, social workers, program managers, and state officials from the departments of health, early education and care, and elementary and secondary education.
“I’m a white woman. And I live here. But there are battles that I don’t have to face every day. So I don’t want to go into a community and say, you have to do it like this.” Howard says, adding that she asks other people to help her see past her own blind spots.
These conversations have helped her tap into Springfield’s energy and excitement.
“Everyone sees that this work is important,” Howard says. “It’s not just about books for kids. We’re battling generational poverty because the way out of generational poverty is to graduate from high school prepared for a career or a job or trade school or college. And the biggest indicator for graduating from high school is reading at grade level by the end of third grade.”
“People really want to help, because they see that these big issues — generational poverty or food insecurity — affect everything. They affect the workings of the city because the city is a little ecosystem, and everything affects everything else.”
Howard, who grew up in Chicopee, got her start in education when she was in high school and worked at a child care center. An only child, she loved being around other kids.
As an undergraduate at Wheelock College, she thought she would become a preschool teacher, but she switched to math and science at the elementary education level. “I like puzzles, and math is just a series of puzzles.”
On a bit of a lark, she applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and to her surprise she was accepted.
“I got the email and thought it was a prank,” she says of Harvard’s notification. “So, I called the number, and I thought, this is a pretty good prank because someone actually answered the phone.”
Howard went on to be a fourth-grade teacher and a union rep in Springfield. She worked as an instructional coach for a charter school in Worcester, and she became head of school there for kindergarten and first grade students.
How does a math and science teacher become a literacy champion? Howard points to her student-teaching work at the King Open School in Cambridge, Mass. That’s where she saw that literacy was essential to all the subjects that students learned.
“There are challenges when you’re in a math or science classroom, and the kids can’t read, write, and talk, or act and sing about numbers.”
These days, Howard is also a student herself, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts’ Language, Literacy and Culture program.
Ask Howard who her mentors are, and she says, “I learned how to do things and how not to do things from these really strong women.” Those women were her mother and grandmother, whom she grew up with.
It was her mother who told her: “Your job is school. You do school. Make sure you do school.”
Howard also has a mentor through WIT (What it Takes: Women Innovators and Trailblazers), an organization that seeks to “ignite a women-led innovation economy in western Massachusetts and beyond.”
“The mentees are 30 to 80. And the mentors are 30 to 80. It’s inter-age, and everybody values everyone else.” Howard’s mentor helped her think about “how to leverage relationships to be able to get to facilitate learning for other people.”
The next thing Howard plans to do for Reading Success by 4th Grade is organize a summit, a chance for more conversations about the community’s childhood literacy plans and goals.
Howard also wants to do a peer study of cities with literacy programs that Springfield can learn from, potentially looking at cities with similar demographics or with grade level reading programs that are also housed in libraries. She’ll look for successes to learn from and for lessons about what not to do.
In the winter, Howard plans to offer professional development opportunities to programs so that their teams can spend time evaluating themselves and working on capacity-building.
What should policymakers know about Howard’s work?
Not surprisingly, Howard wants to pull them more firmly into the conversation.
“Policy people need to be able to communicate with practice people and research people.”
She also wants policymakers to be sure that “we’re fighting the battles that the people doing the work need us to fight.” How, for example, can teachers get bachelor’s degrees if they can’t afford to pay off the related student loans?
“We need to think about the things that can have an immediate impact first. Let’s make sure we have pay equity or antiracist practices.”
So if you run into Howard, tell her what you think about community literacy efforts, she loves to listen and she makes a point of learning at least one thing from everyone.
Howard’s final thoughts:
“I feel lucky to have the privilege to do this work. I’m very lucky, and I know it.”