Literacy Gap

Reading is a source of relaxation for me. I belong to a book club and enjoy reading a wide variety of types of books.  My mother is a teacher and reading was a big part of my childhood.  There were regular trips to the library and if I was bored, reading a book was the first suggestion.  I have fond memories of sitting on the front porch for hours during the summer, losing myself in a great book.

There is a large gap in literacy which is tied to socioeconomic status. By 3 years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families.  Children in low income families do not have a lot of reading materials in the home but children in affluent families get an average of one new book per month.  Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a program working to narrow this gap by mailing one book per month to children enrolled in the program.

Children in affluent families are exposed to literacy enriched environments during the summer whereas children from low income families, particularly in rural communities do not have access to books or enrichment programs. Summer learning loss creates a learning gap of up to 3 years by the time children are 10 years old.  The graph below is from Save the Children and shows the impact of summer learning loss.summer-learning-loss

Save the Children have two types of literacy programming. The first is targeted at infants, toddlers and parents to improve kindergarten readiness and the second is targeted at school age children to provide in-school and after school tutoring as well as summer programs for children who demonstrate an achievement deficit.   Ultimately both types of programming are intended to improve  3rd grade (8 year old) or reading scores.  They also collaborate with community partners and national donors to try to increase the home and community libraries with free books or book exchanges.

The funding for their programs come from private donors, state and national grants, state budget ear marks for school districts and through sponsorship of children in the schools where they work. You can sign up to sponsor a child in the United States through Save the Children and the money you donate will go to that child’s school to supplement the funding their school has for literacy programming.

Save the Children is trying to implement a new strategy which is more community based and will allow them to reduce their overall cost by increasing cost sharing by partners in the communities. They want to focus on early childhood development (pre-school) and summer learning loss which will mean they won’t have as much of a presence in school programming.

In some of the resource strapped rural communities in which they work, the implementation of the new strategy presents a huge challenge as the schools are often the most powerful organization in the community and funding as well as many of the measures around literacy come from school based testing. In addition, in states such as Kentucky, Save the Children programming has created quite a few jobs in the school system and any job loss in eastern Kentucky gets a lot of negative press.

During my assignment, I have had more exposure to the challenges in rural America and have an increased awareness of some of the drivers for the drama playing out in the current election cycle. Some of the conflict is being fueled by the huge gap in culture and opportunity between urban and rural communities.  Most people from rural communities who are able to leave for college do not return.   Manufacturing or industries such as coal mining or farming have changed and cannot support rural communities like they used to.  Many of the people who remain in those communities are stuck in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage and feel invisible compared to their peers living in urban areas who have access to more resources.

I had the opportunity to participate in a couple back to school events in eastern Kentucky where Save the Children was giving away books. As someone who loves to read, I was so happy to see many of the younger children excited to choose a book and looking forward to reading.    Learning to read is the first step towards reading to learn which is so important to helping people out of poverty.

As I am wrapping up my assignment, I hope I have left Save the Children with some tools and ways to think about change management, but I think they have a huge challenge ahead of them as the political and economic environment is very challenging, particularly in the rural communities where they work.