We can't continue to fail our children

June 29, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

“The single most important indicator of a child’s future success in life is the ability to read.”

“A child’s attitude toward and patterns of reading, learning and even expectation for success in life are set by grade four.”

Those statements by Steve Wernick, supervisor for Elementary Language Arts and Early Learning for Washington County Public Schools, have frightening implications for Washington County. According to Washington County Public Schools, 73 percent of our children enter kindergarten fully ready to learn. That means 27 percent are not ready to learn.

The Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University reports that children from low-income families, who tend not to participate in literacy and enrichment programs during the summer, might experience an average loss of as much as three months of learning over that break. That is a slippage of as much as 33 percent of a school year’s learning. With that kind of loss, a child might never catch up.

Our community can do better than allow 27 percent of our children to enter kindergarten not ready to learn. It isn’t the school system’s fault. Despite not getting our children until age 4 or 5, our school system has won widespread recognition as doing an excellent job. But too many children fall through the cracks. During the critical years before children report to school, parents, daycare providers, families, churches, social services agencies and preschool providers are responsible. As a community, we must find new ways to prepare children to learn.  

And once our children are in school, we can do better than allow them to fall behind. Yes, summer is a time for school-aged children to take a break from the rigors of the classroom, but certainly we can find ways to incorporate enrichment and reading into the games our children play.

Unfortunately, many children come from families that do not value education. Some parents don’t understand the importance of educating their children. We have all heard, “A high school education is good enough” and “My father got a job out of high school working at Mack. So can my son.” These attitudes are seriously outdated. Volvo now applies highly automated manufacturing and assembly processes that feature computers and robots, which involve 21st-century skills. Even if jobs are available, it is a very competitive and demanding process to be hired.  The old jobs at the old Mack Trucks just aren’t there anymore.  

If our community allows this attitude to continue, then consider the economic effects for our children. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports income levels correlate to the education level attained. In 2010, people nationwide with bachelor’s degrees earned, on average, $1,038 per week. Compare that to those with less than a high school education, who earned, on average, $444 per week.  

Sometimes just having a job is important. But having an education is clearly important. This same study shows that the 2010 national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent was not equally distributed. People with bachelor’s degrees experienced far lower levels of unemployment. In 2010, the average rate nationally for this group was 5.4 percent. The unemployment rate among people without a high school diploma was 14.9 percent.

The consequences of a lack of formal education are obvious. Even a whisper of indifference or contempt for education cannot be tolerated. Adults can choose for themselves not to pursue an education. But a community attitude of indifference cannot be allowed to continue when it comes to our children. The adults who promulgate this attitude are not the victims. The victims of these attitudes are the children of this community.  

We need to change the culture of our community to one that fully supports education. We need to refocus our efforts so children are fully ready to learn when they enter school. We need to keep our children from losing ground during the summer months. We need to be sure that by grade four our children have instilled in them patterns of learning, behaviors conducive to escaping poverty and lives designed to be productive happier citizens. I think with a renewed commitment to rethink literacy and our attitudes toward learning, we can bring about nothing less than a cultural change.

We need to avoid victimizing our children and begin putting them in position to improve their own lives. We can’t afford to fail them.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. His email address is

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