November 2, 2023

Testing the Waters: A Q&A Featuring Dr. Shaunté Duggins at the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning

By Michelle Croft

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Testing the Waters examines parent perspectives on through-year assessments for K-12 students in four states: Delaware, Florida, Nebraska, and Texas. In each state profiled, parents desire more information about how testing scores are used and what to do to help their child improve academically. Bellwether sat down with Dr. Shaunté Duggins, associate director at the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning’s New Worlds Reading Initiative to learn more about its work with families in the state on this issue. This discussion has been edited for clarity and content. 

Michelle Croft: How does the Lastinger Center for Learning’s New Worlds Reading Initiative engage with families in Florida? 

Shaunté Duggins: New Worlds Reading Initiative is a state-sponsored program established by the Florida Legislature in 2021. Our purpose is to create a family literacy engagement program, focused on two key aspects: 1) student enrollment, and 2) engagement. To be eligible, a child must be enrolled in a Florida Voluntary Pre-K program and not yet meeting age-appropriate standards according to the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking Star Early Literacy test, or enrolled in a Florida public or charter school in grades K-5 and not yet reading on grade level. 

Once enrolled in our program, students receive one free book for each month of the school year tailored to their personal interest. They also receive resources and activities designed for caregivers to use with their child to nurture literacy skills and increase caregivers’ competence and capacity in reading. We also engage with children and families around literacy learning. We meet parents where they are and provide opportunities for children and families to engage together. I’m proud of the work our team has done to redefine the literacy support landscape for Florida families. 

MC: We heard directly from families in our Testing the Waters analysis and relied on organizations such as New Worlds Reading Initiative to help us make that connection with parents in Florida and other states. How can organizations do a better job of incorporating and amplifying family perspectives in their work? 

SD: We know from the literature that communities have always played an integral role in not only academic achievement for students but also in overall development, particularly among Black and brown families. Recently, there’s been increased focus not just from educators, but also from policymakers, to increase community and out-of-school engagement.   

New Worlds Reading Initiative partners with mission-aligned organizations large and small that do work in Florida to meet families where they are. Leveraging the relationships that these organizations have in communities with families is a win-win, because we’re working toward the same mission. Our partnerships enable us to expand and extend the work that we’re doing to reach more children and families in Florida. 

MC: Given the linguistic diversity among Florida parents, do you have advice on how organizations can better reach out to families who speak a language other than English at home? 

SD: Yes — this is an area that is important to me. First, there are benefits both to English as well as a child’s native language. Something that we try to communicate a lot to educators and families alike is that developing a child’s literacy skills in their native language early on, such as Spanish, will support them to learn how to speak, read, and write in English in the future. That is a key takeaway. Organizations like ours have a responsibility to make every effort to let families know that if they speak a second language at home, they should keep doing that.  

Second, an element of choice and support are vital. In the New Worlds Reading Initiative family application process, parents can select whether they get their child’s books in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, or Braille. The home resources that accompany the books are also in that language. This element of choice is huge. Families are also able to select topics of interest (for example, if they want a book on STEM, they can choose among relevant topics). Often, our Spanish or Haitian Creole books also include snippets of English within them. The alternative to our approach is a zero-sum, “No, we only speak English. You can’t speak your native language.” That’s a turn-off for families and something that we don’t support.  

MC: Our analysis found that parents would like additional resources on how to support their child academically. Can you talk about how New Worlds Reading supports families in this area? 

SD: We’re more than just a book provider. Once families enroll, they get books along with interactive family activities that accompany those books. Book giveaway programs that promote a vibrant home literacy environment influence a child’s literacy skills. We want families to enroll so they can take advantage of our broad array of in-home learning and literacy resources. We hear from families that it’s making a difference, and we have some preliminary data that really highlight the efficacy of the New Worlds Reading Initiative model.  

 We also go out and engage with families in their communities. We host parent workshops across Florida either face-to-face or virtually on topics such as effective literacy strategies, the importance of reading, and progress-monitoring assessments at school. Our programming enables families to understand the different types of literacy or reading assessments that their students may take and what to make of the results that they see. We also host community literacy events to encourage meaningful engagement, because we want to develop students who are avid lifelong readers. And our website includes many resources that are free and available to all families, including a curated resource hub available to parents across the country, not just in Florida.  

MC: How do you spread the word to increase awareness of your program among Florida families? And what, if any, value do partnerships have for your success?  

SD: There are several ways we share information about the New Worlds Reading Initiative so that families know who we are, specifically, because we are an opt-in program. We mail flyers across the entire state to every single school a few times each year. We also recently launched a robust communications campaign with TV, commercial print, and radio advertising to get the information out there so that families know who we are and that we’re a credible resource as a state-sponsored organization.  

We partner with Scholastic to curate our books. There’s an elaborate process to ensure that our books are of high interest, aligned to the state of Florida’s B.E.S.T. Standards, and cover a variety of topics and genres, in a variety of languages as I mentioned. We also partner with the Florida Department of Education to review and approve all our book titles. Our goal is to bolster literacy skills, build reading confidence, and foster a lifelong love of reading.  

Want to learn more about student assessments? Demystify statewide standardized assessments in this series from Bellwether.  

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