22 April 2008

The earliest intervention is reading at home to children before they reach Kindergarten

From the Associated Press today: When her son Dylan was just 6 years old, Kristen Wahlmeier noticed that he had to be bribed to read: A surfing trip here or a pair of new shoes there before he'd pick up a book. Worried as she watched him struggle, a gnawing fear crept into her stomach: Her only son, with big blue eyes and the jones for Star Wars, might be headed for a special education classroom. Instead, teachers at his suburban Portland school intervened immediately, putting him into extra reading and vocabulary tutoring every day before school. It paid off. Now, officials in districts across the country are rapidly adopting similar early intervention programs, hoping that steering a child away from expensive special education classes later will pay off for them, too, in cost savings.

The Center for Urban Child Policy released a policy brief earlier this year about literacy rates in Memphis and Shelby County among low-income parents. Among our findings were that low-income parents do many things right when it comes to preparing their children for school - and a lifetime love of reading - like telling stories, singing songs, playing games and counting numbers. These "in-kind" pre-literacy activities are very important to children's developing minds. However, when it comes to the most important pre-literacy activity - reading to children - low-income parents in Shelby County lag far behind parents nationwide.

More from the AP: Traditionally, children haven't been identified for special education until third or fourth grade. They end up costing roughly twice as much, or about $12,000 a year, to educate an average student, including about $11 billion in federal dollars every year.

These findings fit nicely with a very troublesome headline in today's Commercial Appeal:
City council may cut funding for Memphis City Schools

The Memphis City Council is considering withholding some or all of the $93.5 million requested by the city school district, a controversial move that could provide city residents with a tax break instead of a tax hike.

This triad of issues - Special Education, Early Literacy and School Funding - are critically important to see as inter-related in our community. Fourth-grade reading scores are both evidence of the past and a window to the future: they are evidence of early literacy experiences and predictors of future experiences. (Prison analysts use 4th grade reading scores to determine projected prison populations...)
  • 1 in 7 students (14%) are categorized as Students With Disabilities.
  • 4 in 5 students (82%) are categorized as Economically Disadvantaged
  • 1 in 3 people in Shelby County are functionally illiterate - meaning they have difficulty reading street signs, newspaper headlines, prescriptions and job applications
Too few parents and young children are reading together regularly. Too many children have learning difficulties which are costly for them and for us, the taxpayers. Too often, children are the last priority of policymaking and the first to be considered for budget cuts.

Things we can do that will help:
  1. Invest in early literacy experiences for children. Access to Books from Birth, access to public libraries and to quality time spent reading with parents and caregivers is critical to initiate a love of reading.
  2. Help parents read to their children. Parents may be insecure about their reading ability. The Memphis Literacy Council can give parents with difficulty reading tools to improve their skills and quality time with their kids and books.
  3. Understand the connections between poverty/low-income status, learning disabilities and school finance. Short-sighted budget cuts that affect children will not improve the quality of our city now nor in the future. What gets cut now, we will all have to pay for later.
  4. Make children a priority from the start - not an afterthought at the end.

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