By Scott Robertson
It surprises many first time parents to learn that when their children reach the first day of formal education, those children are already behind in reading proficiency. The American education system expects that children arrive with some rudimentary skills, though there is no clear system in place to tell parents what these skills are, or the level to which children are expected to be able to perform.
A partnership of educators, economic developers, businesspeople and community leaders is working to address that problem locally. “It’s not a schools problem,” said Lottie Ryans, a former telecommunications executive and Johnson City School Board member who chairs the Washington County Economic Development Council’s Workforce/Education Subcommittee Task Force, “It’s a community problem.”
A report submitted last week by the task force says, “It’s estimated that as many as 60 percent of students in the region enter kindergarten already behind in reading. Research shows that most students who start behind, stay behind. Research by the Children’s Reading Foundation shows that schools spend twice as much on students who are behind as those who are at or above grade level.”
The issue is not just about schools having to spend more time and money to bring children up to standards. It’s about the fact that, according to a 2011 study by Johns Hopkins, a student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time, and a child who starts kindergarten below grade level has less than a 12 percent chance of going on to attend a four-year college or university. In short, said Ryans, it’s about our children’s ability to have the best chance to succeed in life.
“I firmly believe every parent wants to do what’s best for their child,” Ryans said. “It’s just a lack of education or understanding on what we’re talking about specifically.”
So what can be done, not just to help young families get their childrens’ education off to a good start, but to let those families know of the help that exists for them? The task force is starting with the community of pediatricians, Ryans said. “Parents of young children have a lot on their plates today, but they will not miss those well visits.”
It may seem to be going out of the way to have doctors take time to stress reading, but the link between health and education levels actually make it a sensible first step, said Bob Swanay, a task force member and director of the Johnson City Public Library. “When it comes to their children, parents do tend to give more weight to what a doctor says than to a librarian.”
Task force members are working with the leadership at Niswonger Children’s Hospital and Johnson City Medical Center to find out where children are starting to slip through the cracks in the system.
In addition, Ryans said, the task force plans a marketing campaign to blanket the county. “If you are in a doctor’s office, there might be a Disney video playing in the waiting room. Sprinkled into that, we’d like to place a PSA that talks about the importance of reading. Working with OB/GYNs and pediatrics offices, we are moving forward. We’re going to be meeting with the Children’s Resource Center folks at Niswonger to say, ‘How can we get literature out there?’ Eventually, we’d like to see radio and TV as well. We want to get that message out there and resonating.”
In addition, Ryans said, the task force is working on partnerships with Second Harvest Food Bank to get books and food in the hands of children in economically distressed situations. “Some kids don’t like holidays and weekends because they don’t really get to eat,” Ryans said. “We want to work on a partnership that both feeds their minds and nourishes them.”
The task force is also working to help create an outreach librarian position at the Johnson City Public Library, Swanay said, to further carry the message of the importance of early life reading skill development. “I’m very comfortable saying we can make a big difference.”