In the suburban community of Poland, Ohio, students at one elementary school participated in a “word parade” in observance of “Read Across America Day.” Dressed in clothing that conveyed the meanings of words, students learned new words through this event. News accounts of the parade suggest that it was a collaborative effort, involving students, parents, school officials, and community residents. Collaborations like this are common in Poland and the community’s demographics help explain this:
- Exceeding state and national averages, 1/3 of Poland’s residents possess a least a Bachelor’s degree, and nearly 2/3 of residents are employed. Average family income in Poland is about $63,000, and the median value of homes is about $145,000.
Because research finds that parental involvement at school is generally higher among middle-income, college-educated parents, one might expect parental involvement at school to be high in Poland. Families in this middle-class community have the resources that facilitate parental involvement at school.
Research also finds that increased parental involvement at school is associated with higher levels of reading proficiency, literacy, and student achievement (Ibid). The most recent “report card” for the Poland local school district seems to reflect this:
- Ninety-nine percent of students in Poland’s local school district graduated from high school in 2007. More than 98% of students in the district scored at or above the proficient level in reading, mathematics, and writing. Satisfying all but one performance measure in 2007-2008, the Poland school district was rated “excellent” in performance last year.
Unfortunately, not all local school districts in Mahoning County can boast of an “excellent” performance rating. Like elsewhere, high performing schools, high levels of parent-school involvement, high income and high literacy are unevenly distributed in Mahoning County, and vary by social class. The Youngstown local school district was placed on “academic watch” last year.
But one can easily argue that Youngstown faces harsher conditions than surroundings suburbs like Poland face. Chronic job loss, population decline, poverty, high crime, and limited access to reliable transportation characterize many Youngstown neighborhoods. These problems tax family and community resources and operate as barriers to increased reading proficiency, literacy, and student achievement.
- Only 10% of Youngstown residents possess a Bachelor’s degree, and only about half are employed. Average family income in Youngstown is about $27,000, and the median value of homes is about $50,000.
- Mirroring what has sometimes been called a “national crisis in literacy”, an estimated 35% of Youngstown residents are functionally illiterate, which means they struggle with things like completing job applications, and reading medicine bottle, bus schedules, and maps.
- Children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be functionally illiterate themselves.
So, while family and community characteristics in middle-class communities seem to facilitate high literacy and student achievement, family and community characteristics in working-class and poor communities seem to impede such things. Social inequality is reproduced and, for some groups, illiteracy is passed from one generation to the next.
For the illiterate, illiteracy often means humiliation, poverty, low-wage employment, and an inability to participate fully in society. For American businesses illiteracy has meant lower productivity, more on-the job accidents, and poor product quality, at a reported cost of $30 billion a year.
In an effort to promote increased literacy in Youngstown, the city and county library system recently opened its Newport library branch. The library offers an Early Literacy Center that addresses literacy at “the starting gate”. Complete with books, toys and literacy activities, the Center is designed to help babies learn pre-literacy skills and become successful readers. Located at an intersection that divides Youngstown from surrounding suburbs, the library also has the potential to bring people from Youngstown and surrounding suburbs together.
However, the fight against illiteracy must not end with the development of single early literacy center, or even with the development of two or three centers. Steps must also be taken to eliminate the poverty, joblessness, crime, neighborhood segregation, the home-school disconnects, and other systemic factors that generate illiteracy in many poor and working-class neighborhoods through our nation.