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Meet the Mom Who Organized the Premier New York State Literacy Conference

On November 5th, more than five hundred educators from 45 districts will gather in Buffalo, NY, for the first Science of Reading conference for New York educators. It will feature nationally-recognized speakers on reading foundational skills as well as reading comprehension. 

This historic conference was organized by a superstar mom, Tarja Parssinen. She didn’t know anything about the issues with reading instruction in America before 2020. And Tarja has received zero dollars in compensation for her organizing efforts.

It gets better – Tarja did raise money for the cause, but it wasn’t to cover her time, it was to allow New York educators to attend the conference for free

Tarja is the model and the change agent we need. We need to talk about her conference – and inspire some imitators.

Tarja (and Todd) versus K–12 Industry Orgs

Tarja isn’t the only parent organizing reading conferences. Next week, I’ll be at the California Reading Coalition conference, organized by Palo Alto school board member and parent Todd Collins. The California Reading Coalition has published more info on the curriculum used in California schools than the California Department of Education. 

Parents have become the new literacy investigative journalists and the best communicators of reading instruction issues.

In fact, parents show a lot more urgency to help educators learn about these issues than… the organizations dedicated to the needs of educators.

K–12 industry orgs have a pretty grim track record on the Science of Reading. The International Literacy Association gave a platform to Science of Reading opponents in 2019, and has been mostly silent since. It recently promoted a short informational session on a Science of Reading topic – but even its members have to pay for it, quite the contrast with Tarja’s free event. Not to be outdone, the National Council for Teachers of English also allowed an anti-Science of Reading session in 2019. NCTE is holding a 2022 conference with time to discuss teaching Shakespeare via video games, but no time for Science of Reading info.

At a leadership level, AASA, the superintendents’ association with the ear of school boards, aggressively promoted Lucy Calkins to every superintendent in the country in November, 2019, and has not responded to calls to repair the damage from promoting her work. 

It’s this juxtaposition that makes Tarja’s and Todd’s efforts especially striking. Will K–12 industry orgs follow the lead of these parent dynamos?

Q&A With Tarja 

How did you become aware of the issue with reading instruction in America? 

Karen, it was honestly through your tweets! 

I always knew that literacy was a problem. Reading proficiency scores have been poor for a while, but I didn’t know what – if anything – I could do about it. During the pandemic, my eyes were really opened to some of the existing problems facing students, and how school closures just exacerbated everything. 

As I began advocating for the safe reopening of schools, I connected with a number of incredibly knowledgeable educators and parents. Some, like you, were from the Twitter literacy community. Via tweets, I began educating myself on reading instruction. 

As an outsider, I couldn’t wrap my head around the rootedness of the problem. If the data showed that what we’re doing isn’t working for the majority of kids, then we need to change course. That’s what would happen in any other industry.

The more I dove into it, the more clear the answer became: direct, explicit reading instruction that truly supports students in word recognition as well as language and reading comprehension.

How did WNY Alliance come together, and what have you been doing to advance the literacy cause locally?

The WNY Education Alliance started out as a family-based, charitable organization focused on helping children in Western New York. 

We knew we had to start our work with literacy, which is the foundation upon which everything builds, but we also knew that improving literacy cannot be done alone. We founded the WNY Literacy Initiative, which is now composed of 23 partner organizations in the region – and beyond – each doing literacy work with children and families in various ways. 

The mission of the WNY Literacy Initiative is to improve literacy rates in Western New York, especially in underserved communities, through a multi-year, three-pronged effort involving community outreach, professional development, and advocacy. You can learn more about us here.

What inspired you to host a conference for districts in your region?

The teachers, 100%. 

When we listened to teachers in Western New York, they were very clear: they wanted to learn more about the Science of Reading, to learn from the experts, and they wanted to do it in person.

Amazing things happen when people get together, face-to-face. I knew that I could make that happen, and that it could be life-changing for these educators, and in turn, life changing for their students. Literacy conferences about the Science of Reading, where the best minds are gathered in one room, for one day, don’t happen in Buffalo every day, if ever.

You even raised money so this conference could be free for attendees! Are you superwoman? 

The greatest way to make change is to ensure that the best professional development is free and accessible to everyone. I sat down and sent a lot of emails and made a lot of phone calls. 

The reality is, people want to work together and contribute to causes like this. Sponsors understood the opportunity for greater impact. With the WNY Literacy Initiative, we’re leveraging the network effect of 23 different groups, each with their own expertise in literacy, shown in the graphic at the bottom of this page

How have districts in your region responded to the conference, and your advocacy generally?

Initiatives come and go, so at first, there was a wait-and-see attitude. As our partnership expanded to include more organizations, and as our mission expanded, the response from superintendents and leadership was very positive. We all want the same thing: every student reading at grade level. 

Without any marketing or advertising, registration for the conference is full and we have a waiting list! That’s all the response we need. 

Who will be at the conference on November 5th?

Teachers! We have approximately 560 people registered for our conference, 90% of which are teachers and admin from over 45 districts. We also have parents, advocates, and policy makers, but we intentionally prioritized educators, so that is the bulk of our audience.  

From a speaker-perspective, I’m so honored tho have national leaders like Kareem Weaver, the Co-Founder of FULCRUM (Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate), Natalie Wexler, an education writer and the author of The Knowledge Gap,Dr. Tracy White Wheeden, President and CEO of the Neuhaus Education Center, Dr. Maria Murray, President and CEO of The Reading League, and Pam Kastner, the State Lead Consultant for Literacy at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN).

Our full lineup and agenda can be found here.

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