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Summit on Childhood Literacy seeks to brighten future for at-risk youths

Many of event's participants at Hagerstown Community College endorse creation of task force

May 03, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, left, listens Thursday as Mary Baykan, director of the Washington County Free Library, speaks Thursday at a literacy summit in Hagerstown.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

The adult illiteracy rate in Washington County is estimated to be at 17 percent, which poses economic and cultural problems for the community’s future, the director of the Washington County Free Library said Thursday.

Library Director Mary Baykan was speaking at the Summit on Childhood Literacy at Hagerstown Community College, where more than 100 people from education, government, civic and other organizations had gathered to discuss how to prevent the county’s children from joining that illiterate adult demographic.

Washington County Public Schools have high school graduation rates above 90 percent, but the national average is about 70 percent, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the attendees.

“Over half of our young people leave high school without the basic skills to be deemed literate,” Wilcox said of the national literacy problem.

“Seven thousand kids drop out of school each and every day in America,” Wilcox said. “That’s not something we can continue to sustain as an economy or a nation.”

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Even with the county’s relatively low dropout rate, it still means that scores of young people are dropping out of school without the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century, Wilcox said.

“I believe literacy skills are the new civil right,” Wilcox said.

A literate citizenry is essential to preserving democracy, by having citizens that can understand the issues facing the nation, Baykan said.

The Rotary Club of Hagerstown sponsored the event along with county schools and the library, Rotary Club President David Hanlin said.

Much of the discussion centered on involving parents of at-risk children in literacy programs.

Literacy begins at home, and children need the “warm psychological impact” that comes from parents reading to them, Wilcox said. It also helps develop vocabulary, pronunciation and comprehension, he said.

“The parents have to be your best asset,” said Michelle Sampson, a parent who signed up for the summit after reading about it inThe Herald-Mail.

After the morning session, the attendees broke up into small groups and returned with suggestions that included expanding the school day or year and creating programs that educate parents of at-risk children about the importance of literacy to their children’s futures.

The group Sampson worked with suggested that the school system’s elementary summer literacy camps be expanded to serve all grades.

School board member Justin Hartings said a literacy program modeled after the United Way’s Day of Caring could bring businesses and nonprofit organization together to combat illiteracy. 

Referring to the loss of learning some students experience during summer vacation, Hartings said reading programs need to be where the children are in the summer, such as recreation centers or vacation Bible schools.

Creating a communitywide child-literacy task force was one idea that many of the participants endorsed.

Baykan reminded participants that Saturday is Washington County Reading Day, beginning at 10 a.m. in the Valley Mall. It will feature, among other attractions, a number of children’s book authors.

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