ALAMOSA — A diverse group of San Luis Valley residents participated in Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia’s statewide listening tour on Thursday in Ortega Middle School’s auditorium.
Through face-to-face research, Garcia is gaining local insight and perspective on early childhood literacy. He is visiting 18 Colorado cities to engage education and community leaders in a conversation about the local literacy condition, particularly third grade proficiency.
“I’ve seen more growth here than any other place,” Garcia said in his introduction. “Third grade reading proficiency is up.”
He said that his intentions are to find out what literacy methods are working in the Valley and what literacy challenges the community faces. He will then relate the information to the governor and other education entities.
“The smart people in Denver make the plan,” Garcia said. “They are asking for input.”
One of the aims of literacy development in Colorado is to improve the future workforce, he said.
“We need a well educated workforce to help with the economy,” Garica said. “It appears that Colorado is educated, but in certain demographic and geographic areas it’s not so rosy.”
He said that Denver’s high White Anglo Saxon college graduation rate often masks the realities of Colorado’s rural communities.
“In some places, only 14 or 15 percent of Hispanics have a degree,” Garcia said. “In some places degree percentages are in the single digits.”
Garcia’s third grade literacy research might contribute to a deeper understanding of graduation rates.
“We think third grade literacy is a graduation indicator,” Garcia said. “We need to figure out if this is a third grade issue.”
After a few words from Mile High United Way CEO Christine Benero, who is advocating for a $3.6 million dollar Social Innovation Fund grant, the microphone made its way into the audience and it amplified many voices.
Consuelo Llamas, a foster grandmother from Antonito, told the Lt. Gov. that she lives in a forgotten town with an unappreciative education system.
“I was told not speak Spanish to the students,” Llamas said. “Remember that Antonito is a town.”
Her comment touched many of the morning’s speakers who reassured her that tradition is part of the learning environment.
“We encourage Spanish speaking,” Lori Smith, Alamosa Elementary principal, said. “Children who are allowed to speak in their native language do better with reading.”
She also said that today schools are mandated to do more with less and that there are not enough volunteers in the system.
“We are smaller and we don’t have resources and money,” Smith said. “How can rural areas have rules and regulations fitted to meet their needs?”
Sangre de Cristo Superintendent Brady Stagner later asked, “Do we need to find ways to fail to find an influx of money?”
Garcia couldn’t answer his question, but recommended that communities keep their voices heard.
“Voters need to step up and say it is worth it to invest in schools,” he said.
Donna Briones, the Del Norte Head Start executive director, took the microphone and shared a story with the Lt. Gov. She told him that her program is mandated to secure 25 percent of its services through in-kind donations and that she always delivered.
“We have done it with a parent match,” Briones said. “We value everything the parents do. If a parent is reading to a child, it is a contribution and it has a monetary value.”
Center Consolidated School District Superintendent George Welsh also shared success stories and, using a Theodore Roosevelt quote, defined his management style.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” Welsh said.
One of the last of the morning’s speakers was Monte Vista Superintendent Dwayne Newman. He expressed concern about literacy teacher training and whether or not teachers have the skills to serve rural districts.
“We could have experts come in that don’t require training,” Newman said. “What are the (graduating) teacher requirements?”
When the sands had run through the hourglass, Garcia summed up the conversation.
“This region may have limited money resources, but there is a rich culture and history and a deep commitment to children and family in the San Luis Valley,” Garcia said. “We need to find more resources.”