Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D.: The importance of early childhood literacy

Filling in the Blanks with Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D.: The importance of early childhood literacy
Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

Literacy provides the pathway to help children succeed. Children need to be exposed early to the wonderful world that comes to life within a book. In April, we celebrate the Week of the Young Child, as well as National Library Week and School Library Month.

I am amazed by our students and their desire for knowledge. As families adjusted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, temporarily turning homes into virtual classrooms and offices, many of our students’ love of learning continued. Their resilience and hunger to learn, combined with the guidance and joint efforts of our teachers, families and school volunteers, will help in addressing the social, emotional and academic learning loss experienced nationwide due to the pandemic. This experience also underscores why an early start to a child’s learning process is so important.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children should be introduced to reading early. The AAP has found that children who are exposed to language and books from a young age tend to read earlier and excel in school when compared with those who are not. A child’s proficiency in reading by the third grade is viewed as an important predictor of high school graduation and career success.

We appreciate the support our school volunteers provide to our students. As April 18 to 22 marks Public School Volunteer Week, I am happy that more volunteers can come back into our schools, following current health and safety guidelines. Volunteers from the Life Enrichment Center, for example, have been working with second grade students at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology. The Alexandria Tutoring Consortium also provides reading assistance within the school division, employing the well-researched Book Buddies program developed by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

ACPS Literacy Instructional Coach Sarah Calhoun said first grade students at Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School get one-on-one reading support twice a week from Book Buddies volunteers, which helps strengthen their literacy skills. NLB Kindergarten students join volunteer tutors in the Kindergarten Reading Readiness program started by a former ACPS teacher, in which early foundational reading skills are reinforced using books, games and writing.

School and local libraries are a powerful resource for our community. During School Library Month in April, the American Association of School Librarians has encouraged all librarians to highlight the essential role that a strong library program plays in a student’s education. ACPS libraries allow students to explore different genres of literature, tap into information resources and master technology that makes learning fun.

The City of Alexandria’s library system also offers a myriad of educational opportunities, along with reading selections and programs for all ages and reading levels. For instance, its 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten program promotes reading aloud to your child to prepare them for kindergarten. While 1,000 books may sound like a lot, that is just one book a night for less than three years. Families can also access early literacy programs via the Alexandria Library Virginia YouTube channel, with songs, games and stories for children as young as 2 and under.

As ACPS moves forward with its 2025 Strategic Plan, we strive to provide equitable learning opportunities for all children. We recognize the need for students’ social, emotional and academic learning as we continue to address the impact of COVID-19 and systemic racism on academic achievement. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds from the American Rescue Plan continue to aid in the recovery of learning loss and in addressing trauma experienced during the pandemic.

As a lifelong educator, I encourage all families to help their children acquire language and early literacy skills through reading at home each day or participating in a literacy program in Alexandria through ACPS. Early readers are better prepared to succeed despite unexpected challenges that may emerge. Early learning opportunities not only set the pace for future academic success but also help prepare students to excel in an increasingly competitive workforce of the future.

The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.