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Queens Chronicle

OPINION Tackling the childhood illiteracy crisis in NYC

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Posted: Thursday, October 20, 2016 10:30 am

Current events may obscure the fact that our nation faces a crisis of massive proportions and of grave consequences — one that impacts many facets of society: our economy, public health issues and the criminal justice system.

Despite our nation’s preeminent economic power and resolve, we’re losing the battle for childhood literacy.

While the childhood literacy crisis is absolutely a national issue, it is particularly acute here in New York City.

Children in high poverty neighborhoods from all five boroughs enter kindergarten without the basic literacy experiences that are pre-requisites for academic success and beyond.

Students from poorer neighborhoods enter well behind their more affluent peers and never make up the difference.

Today, it is estimated that over 2 million New Yorkers, approximately 25 percent of the city population, are functionally illiterate.

Yet most of the reading problems faced by today’s adolescents and adults are the result of problems that might have been resolved in their early childhood years.

Poor literacy overwhelmingly, and chronically, affects low-income families.

The average high-income child has more than 50 books in his home.

Compare that to a low-income child, who owns, on average, just one.

The average child from a low-income household has less than 25 hours of one-on-one reading when she enters school — compared to the 1,000+ hours of a high-income child. Does this gap make a difference?

In 2016, two out of three third-grade public school students qualifying for free or reduced lunch were not reading at grade level.

In contrast, 60 percent of those third-graders whose family income exceeds poverty guidelines were able to read at grade level, an almost mirror image of proficiency.

The children of marginalized populations and low-income households are predisposed to literacy challenges and there must be a concerted effort to assist and empower these communities.

We often use the phrase “It takes a village” to describe our desire to work together to improve the common good.

There is no better cause to apply this credo to than the issue of childhood literacy within New York City, and that’s what my organization — Literacy, Inc. — has been doing in some of the poorest neighborhoods for the past 20 years.

If it takes a village to raise a child, LINC staff and volunteers illustrate that the opposite is also true — that you can take a child and raise a village.

LINC invigorates existing village connections — the resources that are present in every neighborhood: schools, libraries and, most importantly, people — and then adds many more.

And once this network that links in home activities with community and school activities is developed, it can sweep many more children and families into its village of readers and book sharers.

We need strong investments from government at every level — city, state and federal — to fund and effectively manage those agencies that interact with young children and their families.

We need policies and resources that empower community-based organizations like LINC that are working on the ground each day.

As we continue into the new school year, it’s important to remember that poor literacy is not an isolated condition.

It takes a toll on society at large, directly correlating to individuals dropping out of school, truancy, chronic unemployment and prolonged dependence on public assistance.

Not only does it economically impact “the village,” but it also carries a profound human cost.

It damages the social fabric of many low-income families, who lose the valuable opportunity to use literacy as a form of family bonding.

To make our city and our country better, we must support elected officials who prioritize childhood literacy as a key policy issue.

We must hold accountable at the polls those who do not.

Shari Levine is Executive Director of Literacy Inc., a Manhattan-based organization that promotes childhood reading in underprivileged neighborhoods across the five boroughs.

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