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IMPROVING LITERACY IN MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOLS: Taking the Alabama Reading Initiative to the Next Level

“Bill Gates called [America’s] high schools obsolete, and we have seen reports about high dropout rates across the country,” Riley said

It was standing room only on June 30 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center for a special one-day forum co-sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Alabama Department of Education, and the office of Governor Bob Riley, and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. More than 250 educators, policymakers, and business and community leaders—hailing from Alabama and neighboring states—gathered to learn more about reading and writing instruction at the secondary school level and to help kick off the Partnership for Adolescent Literacy, a pilot program designed to promote greater participation of secondary schools in the nationally renowned Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI).

Prominent guests included Alabama Governor Bob Riley (R)U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise, each of whom offered strong words of support for comprehensive literacy instruction across the K–12 curriculum.

“Bill Gates called [America’s] high schools obsolete, and we have seen reports about high dropout rates across the country,” Riley said. “I believe this is directly related to literacy. I strongly support the ARI and want to expand it.”

Senator Sessions added that it may be time to expand the federal Striving Readers program, which was created to improve the literacy skills of teenage students who read below grade level. He pledged to give serious consideration to new funding options for the program. Keynote addresses were given by Kylene Beers, senior reading researcher at Yale University’s Comer School Development Program and newly elected vice president of the National Council of Teachers of EnglishJudith Irvin, a noted expert in literacy and middle grades instruction from Florida State University; and Katherine Mitchell, the assistant state superintendent and director of the Alabama Reading Initiative.

Mitchell noted that the ARI has focused its work on the elementary level over the past several years, but now that reading coaches and staff development programs are in place in all 799 of Alabama’s elementary schools, it is poised to ratchet up its service to the state’s 135 secondary schools. She added that the ARI features prominently in a new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which praises it as a model for other states hoping to build teachers’ commitment to literacy instruction at all grade levels and in every subject area. (More information on the AIR report is available at

Additional speakers at the conference included Thomas Hamby, chairman of the Business Council of AlabamaTommy Ledbetter, principal of Buckhorn High School (which has been recognized by the Alliance for Excellent Education and other national organizations for its success in adolescent literacy instruction); and a number of other practitioners and policy experts.

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