Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “We have a lot of work to do in reading education, specifically in urban literacy education” With Kathryn Starke & Penny Bauder

In 2019, the results of US education system indicate that 64% of 4th graders (nine-year-old children) read below grade level. The statistic increases to 80% in low-income communities. Some states across the country have only 30% of students reading on grade level. We have a lot of work to do in reading education, specifically in […]

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In 2019, the results of US education system indicate that 64% of 4th graders (nine-year-old children) read below grade level. The statistic increases to 80% in low-income communities. Some states across the country have only 30% of students reading on grade level. We have a lot of work to do in reading education, specifically in urban literacy education. Children will not be successful in learning or life without being a successfully, independently reader.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Kathryn Starke. Kathryn is an urban literacy consultant, author, keynote speaker, and founder of Creative Minds Publications, a global literacy educational publishing company. Starke has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, master’s degree in literacy and culture, and fifteen years of experience in her educational career. She was an inner-city elementary school teacher before she served as an elementary school reading specialist and district literacy coach. Her first children’s book, Amy’s Travels, is used in schools in over 26 countries on 6 continents. Her book, Tackle Reading, is an educational resource written to motivate and inspire parents and teachers in promoting a love of literacy at home and in school. It’s part of the 4th annual Tackle Reading program supported by the NFL. Starke was selected as one of the top educational experts you should be following in 2019.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory “behind what brought you to this particular career path?

My mother is one of eight children; six of them, including my mother, all worked in the field of education. I attended school by day and played school by night and every weekend. By the time I was eleven years old, I started my business teaching five and six-year-old children how to read and play the piano. As a high school and college student, I was a nanny and a summer camp assistant teacher. I knew I was destined to become an elementary school teacher. I specifically selected a college with a reputation for producing exceptional teachers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I wrote and published a children’s book entitled Amy’s Travels when I was a second-grade teacher to teach the continents to my students. When I searched the library for books on the subject, I could only find nonfiction books on each continent. Therefore, I wrote the first children’s picture book to teach all seven continents. I created lessons plans in reading in social studies to match. While I wrote the book to help teachers in my home state of Virginia, the title ended up being a recommended multicultural title by the California Department of Education, a resource to the global educational center in Melbourne, Australia, and is now used in schools in over 26 countries on 6 continents.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can honestly say that as a first-year teacher of at the age of twenty-two, I feel like I had no idea what I was doing (even though I had played school since I was a little girl). I would joke saying I can’t believe parents are confidently leaving their seven-year-old children in my care for seven hours a day. Your first year of teaching is always special because the students truly educate you and let you know what they want and need to learn, and every single year is different. I realize today that I must have done something right since I still hear from these students, who are all successful young adults.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I am expanding the reach of the 4th annual Tackle Reading day with the NFL for March 2020 to motivate and inspire more elementary school children to love literacy. I am working on a new reading resource to help elementary school teachers help all of their students to become successful, independent readers. Lastly, I have created TRICK, the first literacy application to provide the one-on-one reading instruction between a teacher and student.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

As an urban literacy consultant, I have been able to help over 100 schools from Brooklyn, New York down to Charleston, South Carolina achieve literacy success. In these inner-city elementary schools, I have increased teacher retention, increased reading rates, and helped schools become #1 in reading in their network. I am an urban education trainer for AmeriCorps, guest lecturer, keynote speaker, and adjunct professor for universities, and a presenter in statewide and national reading conferences. I am a published author and contributing writer on quality literacy education for Teach Hub, The Teaching Channel, and Reading Today the educational blog for the International Literacy Association.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

In 2019, the results of US education system indicate that 64% of 4th graders (nine-year-old children) read below grade level. The statistic increases to 80% in low-income communities. Some states across the country have only 30% of students reading on grade level. We have a lot of work to do in reading education, specifically in urban literacy education. Children will not be successful in learning or life without being a successfully, independently reader.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Education is an ever-changing industry, and there are always areas of improvement.

  1. I believe the US education system currently excels in inclusivity, which means children with and without disabilities are education in the same school and classroom.
  2. I believe the US education system is strong in using research to implement the best new trends including examples such as social emotional learning, project-based learning, developing a growth mindset, or 21st century learning.
  3. I believe the US education system understands the purpose of data. While there’s an argument of whether there may be too many assessments or too much data, schools understand the importance of collecting data to drive instruction.
  4. I believe the US education system understands the importance of differentiation in math and reading instruction recognizing that children need one-on-one and small group instruction to best meet their learning needs.
  5. I believe the US education system understands how important professional development and learning opportunities for teachers are essential in supporting our teachers in growth and competency of content.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. Urban Literacy Education-When we only have 80% of nine-year-old children in low income areas reading below grade level, it is evident that we need to prioritize reading education beginning with funding in elementary schools for real books, trainings and ongoing support for elementary school teachers, and interventionists.
  2. Equity of Resources in Schools-Historically, public education is primarily funded by its locality, which is evident when you visit a variety of schools in the same district, region, or even state. It is unacceptable and unfair that a school in a lower income area does not have a playground, working technology, or reading tutors. We can do better.
  3. Appropriate Use of Assessments-Assessments should be used to determine and dictate instruction, not to label a student or score a school. Assessments do not share the full picture of a child’s intelligence or a teacher’s capability. Students, teachers, and administrators should not feel stressed but rather supported in creating a learning environment that promotes a love of literacy, exposes children to all content areas, and motivates children to enjoy coming to school.
  4. Early Intervention-Research shows that by the age of three, a child’s vocabulary development and readiness skills are key indictors in a child’s educational success. Therefore, providing quality education for our youngest children is imperative in closing the opportunity and achievement gap.
  5. Whole Child Focus-An understanding that creative play, exploration, music, active play, art, collaboration, critical thinking, cultural competency, and communication are necessary alongside academics in every classroom. Children in these learning environments are better prepared for life beyond formal schooling.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

I believe that the US currently has a major focus on engaging young people in STEM, but it is not evident in urban elementary schools, most often because of the cost of resources. The most effective way to increase engagement in schools is to provide more developmentally appropriate technology that support content and create results in student achievement. Creating a science lab and outdoor learning experiences in elementary schools where children can experiment and explore increases engagement. Children’s engineering is the least supported STEM focus in schools, which can easily be implemented in conjunction with literacy, geography, and science.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Historically, a public perception of a girls’ lower aptitude in math and science existed. Today, growth of technology as a career for men continues to expand, which is evident in the Silicon Valley gender imbalance. Every female should be introduced and engaged in STEM subjects beginning in kindergarten so that she has the option and opportunity to acquire knowledge and content related to their interests and choice of career.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

We can always do better in the US with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects beginning with our youngest learners in kindergarten. One simple way to do this is to invite female industry leaders as guest speakers for young girls to see a role model in the field. I would encourage investors with a focus on STEM to visit high schools and colleges around the country and meet with talented girls and women who have an innovative idea. Finally, field trips and internships in careers related to STEM should become available to students within their own communities.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I believe we should focus on STEAM because you can’t be successful in any of the subjects without reading. It’s also very important to remember that children have their own strengths, challenges, likes, and dislikes. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory reminds us that children learn in different ways. Therefore, we should expose children to all subjects from STEM to the arts to literacy and help them find what they enjoy and where they excel. Not every child has a desire to work in a field with a heavy emphasis in science or engineering. Creating a learning balance within each strand of STEAM will create well-rounded individuals following their own passions.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

If I had the power to influence the entire US educational infrastructure, I would start by improving my personal priority areas in the following ways:

  1. Urban Literacy Education-I believe more funding should be provided to elementary schools where the foundations of reading are built. Every elementary school teacher is a reading teacher, which means schools deserve literacy consulting support for teachers and students as well as enough interventionists or reading tutors to meet the needs of all students. At least two and 1/2 hours of literacy instruction is imperative in K-2 classrooms to properly teach reading and writing incorporating the five pillars of reading development phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Content area literacy is also a recommended practice, especially in K-2, to include science and social studies content during the school day. Finally, I believe that no elementary school should be without leveled, engaging, culturally relevant, popular, current book titles. Research shows that reading on grade level by the end of third grade is an important predictor of school success. Therefore, we need to compensate and support our elementary school teachers as the first teachers in a child’s educational journey.
  2. Equity of Resources in Schools-I believe that state and federal funding should be used to fill the gaps in resources for school communities in low income communities who lack them. Public schools should be allowed to fundraise and given full access to apply for awards and grants from businesses and organizations that provide financial resources and materials.
  3. Appropriate Use of Assessments-Schools should not be rated based on standardized testing. Diagnostic assessments and progress monitoring tools should be used to understand the strengths and challenges of our students and help to determine a teacher’s instruction, which constantly changes. Not all students are good test takers. Therefore, providing a variety of opportunities for children to show their competency of content through portfolios and projects helps teachers understand who has a full comprehension of a subject matter.
  4. Early Intervention-Every four-year-old child in every neighborhood should be provided with the opportunity to attend pre-kindergarten. Quality early childhood educators in a PreK classroom will help to close the opportunity and achievement gap, which is evident in children by the age of three.
  5. Whole Child Focus-I would increase the amount of time children get to play outside and learn through exploration in the classroom. I believe keyboarding and computer science should be a resource for elementary school children rather than a responsibility of the classroom teacher; technology teachers are most needed in the 21st century. Guidance counselors should also be a strong presence for all children in all classrooms providing life lessons including coping skills and effective communication techniques. We need to create a curriculum that provides children with skills that will prepare them for the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Reach for the moon! Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.”

I have always set high expectations and lofty goals for myself, which push me beyond my comfort zone and open doors for myself that may not seem possible. I believe in setting high expectations for my students so that they are provided with opportunities they may have not imagined for themselves.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a private lunch with the biggest names in Business, VC funding, and entertainment who are interested in collaborating with real educational experts to make an impact in America’s K12 Education. This includes Richard Branson, Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Case, and Oprah Winfrey.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@KathrynStarke on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest


Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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