By Dave Stafford, Herald Bulletin Staff Writer
ANDERSON - Nearly 14 percent of Madison County residents lack basic literacy skills. It's a disadvantage that dramatically raises their likelihood of incarceration and lowers their chances of earning a living.
It's also a problem that affects people of all ages and in all stations in life.
"There's just no rhyme or reason as to why people don't learn to read," said Ginger Mills, executive director of the Madison County Literacy Coalition. "So many of our learners have high school diplomas. ... We have a lot of learners who have retired from General Motors."
On the other end of the age spectrum, new emphasis is being placed on babies, pre-kindergartners and the building blocks of learning.
The Born Learning Connection is a United Way outreach to parents. With a call, a parent can sign up to host a party and receive a basket with about $100 worth of educational toys, books and other goodies. Parents also receive some good advice and tips to help their children learn.
"They don't realize how much a child can learn at an early age," said Shelly Hasty, a Born Learning site coordinator who helps out with the group's basket parties, demand for which has been greater than anticipated. "They think, 'My 6-month-old can't learn anything,' but in the long run, it will show and develop."
There is a wide gap between children who are ready for kindergarten and those who aren't. Educators say that's a big problem, because children in kindergarten and younger learn ABCs and basic literacy skills far faster than older ones. By fourth grade, children learn only about one-eighth as fast, some studies show.
"We have kids who come to (kindergarten) two to three years behind developmentally," said Mary Lee Ewald, director of Community Alliances to Promote Education.
"It's unacceptable for any child's future to be diminished because they lack literacy skills," Ewald said.
CAPE, the organization led by Ewald, is a cooperative venture among Madison County public schools and parent leaders with a simple goal: improving literacy.
As a marker of success, the number of third graders countywide passing ISTEP language arts tests in 2008-09 matched the state average, 74 percent. Ten years earlier, Madison County third graders were a full 15 percentage points below the state average on those ISTEP tests.
"That's the power of a community that works together," Ewald said.
Robinson Elementary has closed, but it still might have some lessons to teach.
It became a reading academy with results that principal Beth Clark bragged about to the Anderson Community Schools board recently. Tearful Robinson teachers applauded as Clark told of results that included more than 90 percent of kindergartners reading at or above grade level at the end of the school year.
A key to Robinson's success was individual attention and monitoring student progress. "It's indescribable, really," Cassaundra Day said of the importance of individual tutoring. Day was a reading buddy at Robinson and is also director of literacy services at the Madison County Literacy Coalition. "It makes an incredible difference."
Day said that even schools' reading recovery programs can sometimes fall short because students might receive individual attention for only a limited amount of time during the school day.
She cited as an example one of her Robinson reading buddy students who was repeating first grade and barely knew letters when he transferred to Robinson and started the program. In a matter of months, that child was reading full sentences.
"What they were able to do with those children was phenomenal," she said.
Clark, who is now personnel director at Anderson Community Schools, said that many of the techniques that were successful at Robinson will transfer to Anderson Elementary school at the K-2 level, and perhaps other ACS schools.
Individual attention is something that parents can do with their children from an early age, said Born Learning site coordinator Kelly Hughes. "You can start reading to your children at birth and they can gain from it."
Born Learning coordinators have a strategy that they share with parents who read to their children. They call it the PEER sequence:
- Prompt the child with a question about the story;
- Evaluate the child's response;
- Expand on the child's response;
- Repeat the initial question to check that the child understands what was learned.
Without that kind of parental participation at a young age, Hughes said children "are losing the story about them."
But sometimes parents are not equipped to be their child's first teacher.
"When you have adults who can't read, that trickles down to the children in many cases," said Born Learning coordinator Joanne Hadley.
"You have to wonder, are we missing some kids?" Day said. "There's always going to be gaps. There's always going to be kids we don't reach."