Opinion: Working to improve literacy

Jon Krause NewsArt
Jon Krause NewsArt

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The Urban League of Greater Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools are collaborating with other community partners to do our part to close the literacy gap by engaging the broader community to boost leisure reading.

When school systems transitioned to virtual learning last spring, we faced a stark crisis and reality: No one was well-prepared for an abrupt transition to distance learning. For children in many low-income families, communities of color, and rural areas, it proved to be nearly impossible. They often had limited or no access to necessary technology despite best efforts to supply them with devices and hotspots.

More than 800,000 people in our region are illiterate, and only 36 percent of APS third-graders are reading at grade level. In 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that in Georgia, only 16 percent of Black students tested at proficiency in fourth grade while 76 percent of white students were proficient.

And things have only gotten worse since the pandemic began. A national study by Amplify, a digital learning company, found fewer elementary students scoring at grade level in fall 2020 compared with fall 2019, with Black and Hispanic students falling further behind their peers.

Nancy Flake Johnson
Nancy Flake Johnson

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The Urban League of Greater Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools are collaborating with other community partners to do our part to close the literacy gap by engaging the broader community to boost leisure reading.

Even as the pandemic continues to disrupt our lives, we can address the literacy crisis. A change requires equitable investments in education, teachers, tutors, technology, classrooms, and the adoption of system-wide, science-based methods of teaching reading. Early education is also key.

Dr. Lisa Herring
Dr. Lisa Herring

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

We must unite schools, families, churches, businesses, and public and private sectors committed to our children’s success. The school systems cannot fix the learning deficit alone.

You can help by volunteering with our Race2Read initiative to promote leisure reading to inspire children to build a love of reading that will contribute to erasing the literacy gap.

Now in its third year, Race2Read aims to increase reading proficiency of APS students by achieving 10 million leisure reading hours this school year. Data show that children who struggle to keep up by third grade often become disenchanted with learning and fall so far behind, they drop out before graduation. There are exceptions, but the general rule is that children who don’t do well in school are at the greatest risk of living lives of poverty – locked out of good jobs, careers, or business ownership, and with the greatest risk of entering the prison pipeline. Disturbingly, the criminal justice system relies on third-grade reading scores to predict incarceration rates and building prisons.

With funding from the Hewlett Foundation and support from the National Urban League, we are recruiting individuals, organizations, and businesses. Would you become a “Reading Buddy” and document leisure reading with students so we can measure progress? Just 20 minutes a day makes a huge difference.

Our focus on literacy can help speed the continuing decline in the high school dropout rate. Since 2012, the graduation rate in Atlanta rose 27.1 points from 50.8 percent to 77.9 percent. This improvement is partly driven by programs APS has implemented with community organizations to support college- and career-readiness programs.

One example is the League’s Project Ready at Booker T. Washington and Benjamin Elijah Mays high schools. In 2019, 92 percent of Project Ready students graduated and went on to college, the military, or technical training.

If volunteers from every walk of life get involved, we will achieve education equity. Please register as individuals or families at www.race2read.org. For more information, including how to adopt a school or host a book drive for home libraries, contact EducationEquity@ulgatl.org.

Even in the face of uncertainty, one thing remains certain: Our children’s success is our success. We must Build a City That Reads so that we can Be a City That Leads.

Nancy Flake Johnson is president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta. Dr. Lisa Herring is superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

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