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Susan Ivy conducts a reading conference with Tahj Williams at Bains Lower Elementary School in St. Francisville.

State lawmakers have approved spending $2 million to tackle Louisiana's alarming reading problem for its youngest students, in part because a 24-year-old former teacher made a successful pitch to one of the Legislature's top leaders.

The money, which represents a major turnaround from a month ago, will pay for pilot projects aimed at reversing dismal reading rates for student in kindergarten, first, second and third grades.

An earlier bill to do just that breezed through nearly every hurdle during the regular legislative session before dying near the finish line in the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.

Advocates launched a renewed push when the special session began on June 1, including an appeal from Shea Brittain, a transplanted resident of the Philadelphia area who has seen up close what it means for students to struggle reading.

Brittain used to teach at St. Helena College and Career Academy in St. Helena Parish, one of the poorest in the state.

"I saw first hand how big of an issue this was," she said. "I had ninth graders that couldn't read."

A report earlier this year said only 43% of kindergarten students were reading on grade level, 54% of first graders, 56% of second graders and 53% of third graders – all potential death knells to academic success.

Brittain, who is now a political consultant, also knows and has worked for White, who she considers a mentor.

She had followed the earlier bill to promote reading aid that died by state Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans – House Bill 559 – and had a chance to discuss the issue with White.

"No one had talked to him and really sat down and explained exactly what the bill was going to do," Brittain said.

White said no one ever doubted the merits of spending $2 million to improve reading skills.

"Everybody knows the earlier you can start a child reading and learning the better it is," he said.

The only issue, he said, was whether the state could afford it at a time when the coronavirus pandemic put a nearly $1 billion hole in the state operating budget.

White specifically recalled the pitch from Brittain, a former member of Teach For America, which trains college graduates to enter troubled public schools.

"The money was what they needed," he recalled of supporters.

"I told them if the opportunity came along and we had some dollars that we could use by the time we finished I would plug them in."

That is what happened, with an assist from the federal government to the tune of about $900 million that all but wiped out the shortfall sparked by the pandemic.

The $34 billion state operating budget, which won approval Tuesday in the final hours of the special session, includes $2,061500 to fund pilot projects in up to 12 urban and rural school districts that White added.

The aid means between 1,000 and 1,500 teachers will be supplied research-based coaching and professional development from 12 literacy coaches – teaching teachers how to teach reading.

The $2 million will also pay for professional development, conferences, materials and costs to evaluate the pilot projects.

The push stems from a report in January by a panel called the Early Literacy Commission, which the Legislature authorized in 2019.

John Wyble, a member of the commission, said after the death of the earlier bill he and others reached out to Duplessis and White.

Backers included the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Council for a Better Louisiana, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the state branch of Democrats for Education Reform.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, was also cited as one of those who helped nudge the $2 million through the process.

"I think (it was) a collective effort coming from multiple sides and the timing was right," said Wyble, who is president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Development and Learning.

Advocates said the problem of low reading levels cannot be overstated.

"It really takes your breath away when you think about it," Wyble said. "We can do better. We have to do better."

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said the issue is one of his priorities as superintendent.

Brumley said he hopes the pilot projects produce positive results that can be expanded.

The Duplessis bill that died in White's committee was aimed at putting the issue on the radar but did not include state dollars.

The fact that advocates landed the $2 million anyway was a surprise.

"Whether it comes from my legislation or not it got it moved," Duplessis said.

Susannah Craig, another member of the reading commission, said the $2 million will pay for training for teachers from experts whose sole focus is literacy.

"And I think that is a piece that has been missing," Craig said.

"If we are going to make sure that all students are reading on grade level by grade three we have to make sure every K-2 teacher is well trained in early literacy."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.