My June column challenged the old belief that a high school education was sufficient in order to get a high-paying job. I presented the argument that in today’s world, college or technical training are increasingly important. My column this month returns to the topic of education, exploring the need for a community-wide focus on childhood literacy.
I am president of the Rotary Club of Hagerstown. Rotary International directs its clubs and members to work toward improvements in six areas of focus. One of these six areas is access to basic education and literacy. My local club has been involved with childhood literacy issues for many years. We participate in Dr. Seuss Reading Day as part of Read Across America. We are joined by other county Rotary Clubs to distribute dictionaries to third-grade students and to sponsor The Herald-Mail Spelling Bee. Being sensitive to literacy-related issues, we recently became aware of some disturbing statistics and study findings.
The Literacy Council of Washington County estimates that as much as 17 percent of adults in the county have some form of literacy-related deficit. The United States Census Bureau estimates that 9 percent of our citizens can’t read and comprehend this column. Adults who have challenges reading are disproportionately affected by myriad problems. Statistics show adults who lack reading skills disproportionately abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in or are victims of domestic violence, engage in criminal behavior and suffer much higher unemployment. Many adults who are functionally illiterate are embarrassed about their condition and won’t seek help.
However, the issue that grabbed Rotary’s attention is the status of literacy among children in Washington County. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) requires all local school systems to assess incoming kindergarteners on their readiness to learn. The Maryland Model for School Readiness is designed to assess a child’s ability to successfully carry out kindergarten work. In the latest 2011-12 School Readiness Report from MSDE, among Washington County children starting kindergarten, 22 percent arrive not ready to learn. With only 78 percent ready to learn, Washington County is among the lowest in Maryland; in fact, the third lowest among all jurisdictions in Maryland, exceeded only by Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. There are counties in Maryland with more poverty, more racial diversity, less educational achievement and higher unemployment, yet do better than Washington County when it comes to readiness to learn. As a community, we are doing something wrong. Too many children start school without the basic skills they need in order to learn. The school system does a great job of trying to get these child-ren caught up. However, it is a daunting task. Studies elsewhere suggest that some children, who do not catch up by the end of third grade, might never catch up.
This problem is made worse by something as simple as summer vacation. A study from Johns Hopkins University examined the impact of summer vacation on reading skills and found that children exposed to summer enrichment activities can actually increase skill levels, while children who are not exposed to these kinds of activities can lose as much as two months of learning or reading skills. This problem is made all the worse because children, especially elementary-aged children who lose ground over the summer, often cannot catch up during the subsequent school year. This loss accumulates over the educational life of a child. The result of child-ren entering school not ready to learn, compounded by summer learning loss, is that they grow up with greater chances of having the adult problems described above.
How does Rotary fit in? The Rotary Club of Hagerstown determined that its best course of action was to draw attention to these issues and to encourage individual members to seek changes in current practices, especially in the various organizations with which they are involved. We decided to “advocate for a community-wide movement to increase the number of students entering school ready to learn and decrease the number of elementary students experiencing summer learning loss.” While, the school system is planning a summer literacy camp targeting first-grade child-ren who are reading below grade level, this is not enough. A Rotary task force has concluded that our community can do a better job of equipping children with literacy skills that will allow them to have better lives. We believe our entire community needs to be mobilized. The best way to proceed is to invite interested people and organizations to discuss this issue. This discussion will take place at the Rotary Summit on Childhood Literacy on May 3 at Hagerstown Community College. Advanced registration is required. For more information, contact me or visit www.HagerstownRotaryLiteracyInitiative.org.
David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.