Melany Watson knew something was off with her daughter’s report card.
Her third grader had been named to the A-B honor roll — a distinction any parent would be proud of. But Watson had watched her daughter struggle to read at home.
Her grades did not reflect her abilities.
“I just started crying because I had A-B honor roll certificates for my baby that couldn’t read,” Watson said, as her voice cracked with emotion. “How is my child on the A-B honor roll when she can’t read?”
Six in 10 students who live in Fort Worth did not meet grade level on the state reading test in 2022, according to data from parental advocacy group Parent Shield. The education organization recently hosted a forum with Mayor Mattie Parker to discuss how to shift people’s mindsets around reading and education so Fort Worth can do better.
In front of more than two dozen parents, Parker called on them to demand high quality education for their children. Having that expectation is the only way for schools in Fort Worth to do better, she said.
“This is a long game, as y’all know,” Parker said. “You have to keep going even after your kids are out of school because whatever gains we make, they have to keep going.”
Fort Worth ISD trustee Wallace Bridges, who also attended the forum, emphasized that parents need to be engaged with their children’s education. More than that, they need to show up and demand more from their school leaders, like him, he said.
In March, Bridges was heartbroken when administrators presented projections that showed 19% of third graders would meet grade level on the reading portion of this year’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. In the fall, estimates showed 25% of third graders would meet grade level.
“We cannot accept this as a norm. But, as a board, they have to see more of you guys coming out, and — I’m just going to be more frank — more people of color coming to that board and demanding that we do better when it comes to our kids.”
How Fort Worth is supporting literacy
Trina Harris homeschools her daughter. As a social worker, she has worked with students in Fort Worth ISD. She has heard from mothers who are concerned about their children’s education.
She asked the mayor how the city, which is not traditionally thought of as a player in education, can support literacy.
Parker pointed to the Fort Worth Public Library as one way. Libraries help children and adults become readers, she said. And that’s a free resource for all Fort Worth residents, she said.
The city also hosts reading competitions during the school year and summer, Parker said. Even the city’s summer camp has an embedded literacy component.
“These efforts are not cliche. They work to get students excited,” the mayor said.
The city also supported the NCAA’s Readers Becomes Leaders contest that saw Fort Worth ISD elementary schools compete to see which campus could read the greatest number of books.
Bridges pointed out that three of the the top five were in the district he represents.
“That wasn’t a coincidence,” Bridges said.
Focusing on students already in the K-12 system is not the only way to boost literacy rates, Parker said. Early childhood education is key because it lays the foundation for all future learning.
The city has invested money into early childhood education through nonprofits. Still, more work is needed, the mayor said.
Attainable goals need to be established
Rhonda Adams Randle, a former educator, sees the future as dependent on educating today’s children.
“They are essential to the success of Fort Worth as a whole,” Randle said.
She wants the city to focus on ensuring 100% of students are reading on or above grade level.
Fort Worth had an ambitious plan once before.
In 2016, the leaders of Fort Worth ISD and the city announced an ambitious goal: have 100% of third graders reading on grade level by 2025.
Seven years and a pandemic later, 38% of third-grade students in Fort Worth ISD were reading on grade level, according to 2022 STAAR results. In 2017, 34% of third-graders met grade level.
That endeavor, while valiant, was not realistic for Parker. Any improvements in literacy rates in Fort Worth need to start with attainable goals, she said.
“If I’m honest with you, I, as mayor, am not going to get that done,” Parker said of a 100% literacy goal. “The only way that happens is when your districts are supported, you’ve got great teachers, and we as a community are demanding excellence and know their goals and they’re meeting them year over year.”
Parker emphasized Fort Worth ISD needs more help than ever before. The district is in a rebuilding mode, she said, as Superintendent Angélica Ramsey makes cuts to the district to be leaner and cheaper so it can be more focused on academic excellence.
The mayor told the couple of dozen parents gathered inside the Bradley Center Community Center to be patient as Ramsey reorganizes Fort Worth ISD.
Part of the solution for Parker is high quality charter schools, such as Rocketship Public Schools and the Texas Wesleyan University-operated Leadership Academy Network campuses in Fort Worth ISD.
“But it’s not the silver bullet. You also need high-performing traditional public schools,” Parker said. “This city will not thrive until Fort Worth ISD is back to where it wants to be and where we want it to be.”
Bridges acknowledged charter schools are here to stay.
Most schools in Fort Worth still have their work cut out for them to boost literacy rates.
“We have a long way to go,” Parker said. “The house is on fire. We all have a sense of urgency because those kids who are in the third and fourth grade don’t get to do that again.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.