Childhood illiteracy has long-term reverberations in society.

According to the international nonprofit ProLiteracy, low literacy levels cost the U.S. around $225 billion annually in workforce productivity losses, crime and loss of tax revenues related to unemployment. There are additional expenses in state and federal welfare programs, in which the majority of recipients are high school dropouts.

In short, if great numbers of children can’t read at grade level, it can play out into a problem for almost everyone.

Fortunately, it seems like almost everyone is trying to do something about it.

Aspire Arkansas, a project of the Arkansas Community Foundation, notes that only 38% of the state’s third graders are proficient in reading. To improve that figure and ensure a better future for the state’s children, a coalition of school districts, government offices, literacy advocacy groups, mentors and civic organizations has come together in an overlapping effort to get the state’s children reading at grade level.

“I believe in collaboration. I’ve got to have collaboration,” says Larry Clark, owner and CEO of the youth mentoring nonprofit Life Skills for Youth. “I call it wraparound service. If I don’t have it, let’s see who does have it. If we don’t have it here on our site, let’s see who we know, what organizations we know.”

Rotary 99, the Little Rock School District (LRSD), the Arkansas Department of Education, community nonprofits like Life Skills for Youth and AR Kids Read, statewide campaigns like Excel by Eight — and many others — are enlisting volunteers, forming partnerships and sharing resources in the fight to improve early childhood literacy in Arkansas.

“Research from Excel by Eight, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and others has shown a direct correlation between a student's lack of grade-level reading ability by the third grade and that student’s likely pathway to dropping out of school or even committing a violent crime,” says Denver Peacock, incoming Rotary 99 president. “That’s why we have to address these important societal challenges early on.”

View From the Summit

In one of the clearest examples of how people and groups are coordinating, the LRSD is embarking on a pilot program for its elementary summer schools. The program pulls together the efforts and resources of a number of organizations and institutions and will use 90-minute blocks to focus on literacy for students in kindergarten through third grade.

The summer program is the result of a Rotary 99 stakeholder meeting and an ensuing summit at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which both came through the efforts and influence of rotary member and Arkansas Business Publishing Group President Mitch Bettis (Little Rock Soirée is a publication of ABPG).

“Mitch basically said ‘Hey … don’t worry about the cost or the angle or how this is going to have to play out,’” LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore recalls. “‘Let’s just dream what we should do to impact pre-K through third grade in literacy, and what we can do to enhance your own efforts.’”

The stakeholders meeting was a gathering of 40 city and state government leaders, business leaders and representatives of school districts and nonprofits. The group assessed key literacy issues and began to draw up plans for addressing those issues and keeping at-risk students in school.

The follow-up summit was a two-day event earlier this year in which the initial ideas were put into an action plan. The brainchild is the LRSD summer pilot program.

“About 1,000 K-third grade students will be pre- and post-tested to gauge the success of the endeavor at impacting and improving reading levels,” Peacock says. “The district will train and provide teachers with the latest curriculum instruction best practices, while volunteers like many of us in the Rotary Club of Little Rock and throughout the business community will help with tutoring and reading support.”

The LRSD program will be staffed by volunteers from Rotary 99, the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) and the volunteer-based, literacy intervention program AR Kids Read.

“[It will] hopefully bridge the gap for those kids coming in with fewer language experiences in pre-K and kindergarten,” says Darian Smith, LRSD executive director for elementary school leadership.

The program will emphasize phonics and scientific reading, which are also stressed by the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) in its statewide campaign Reading Initiative for Student Excellence (R.I.S.E.). Lori Bridges, assistant to the ADE elementary and secondary education department director, notes that R.I.S.E. partners with community leaders, parents and teachers — using pre-K programs combined with curriculum and professional development — to instill the importance of reading in homes, communities and schools.

Slippery Slope

While Arkansas’ 38% third grade reading proficiency is hardly satisfactory, it’s actually a number that has improved in recent years. However, even that minor gain could be wiped out thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which scattered students into less-than-ideal, remote learning situations.

“Formerly our model was that we deploy tutors into the classroom for in-person tutoring,” AR Kids Read Executive Director Kathy French says. “Obviously that was impossible. Not only did schools not want tutors in the classroom, tutors didn’t feel comfortable being there either. Everybody was worried.”

Even before the pandemic, summer slippage was a challenge. During the long summer break, students tend to lose some of the gains they made in the previous school year. National nonprofit Reading is Fundamental finds that 80% of kids in economically disadvantaged situations lose reading skills over summer breaks because they don’t have access to books.

AR Kids Read, which partners with a number of businesses, churches, utility companies and foundations, devised a virtual model of its volunteer tutoring program. While not ideal, it did expand the program’s range when it came to enlisting tutors, as people geographically removed from central Arkansas could log in and help.

French says AR Kids Read is designed to augment and leverage existing curricula, building on what schools and districts like LRSD are doing and reinforcing the lessons presented by teachers who only have so much time each day to work with individuals.

“We are continually working to be more and more aligned with what the schools are teaching and how the schools are teaching,” French says.

Unwanted Results

Around 36 million adults in the U.S. lack reading, writing and math skills above a third grade level. Adult education programs fail to meet demand, which makes childhood literacy efforts vital to reducing adult illiteracy rates and improving opportunities for people entering society.

The focus is on pre-K through third grade because that’s the developmental stretch in which children learn to read, educators say. As they move into fourth grade and beyond, they are reading to learn as texts become more concept heavy, complex and, in the case of science and math, more technical.

A child who isn’t reading proficiently moving into later grades may not possess the comprehension skills to decipher mathematical word problems, for example.

“You can’t decode the text to make meaning of it,” says Shana Loring, LRSD executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Around 36 million adults in the U.S. lack reading, writing and math skills above a third grade level.

ProLiteracy figures show around 1.2 million teens drop out of school each year, and students who are behind when they start kindergarten make up the largest numbers of dropouts.

If a student isn’t keeping up with other students, issues begin to be seen as soon as fifth grade, which is when they begin to shut down and run the risk of veering onto a path of non-participation and withdrawal.

“Things start to fall apart for that young person,” Poore says.

Illiteracy is connected to unemployment and low-paying jobs, as one in five adults don’t have the skills to read simple sentences and fill out forms. Illiteracy rules out college for most, which leads to a smaller base of intellectually-skilled people in the workforce, while the World Literacy Foundation notes that, globally, those who are illiterate earn around 35% less than literate workers.

Illiteracy also impacts health, as people are unable to understand basic information, complete medical forms, access services and comprehend risks.

“If people are not reading then they are less likely to go to doctors to be treated and take their medication properly. It has ripple impacts,” French says. “And even shorter term than that, if you can’t read, how can you fill out a job application?”

According to educational products provider BeginToRead, around two-thirds of students lacking reading proficiency by the end of fourth grade end up in jail or on welfare. Of the young people involved in the juvenile court system, 85% are illiterate, while 70% of U.S. prison inmates can’t read above a fourth grade level.

Cause & Effect

Illiteracy can be passed on by parents who never learned to read at grade level and therefore aren’t prepared to encourage literacy in their children. According to Comic Relief U.S., 73% of kids with un- or under-educated parents live in low-income situations.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that around 22% of U.S. children live in poverty, and 45% of poverty-stricken adults have low levels of literacy.

Families living in poverty normally don’t have money to spend on books, as living expenses take precedence, and financial stresses often keep parents from finding time to take an active part in their child’s education.

With so much learning being conducted online, poorer children fall behind because they don’t have access to computers or internet access at home.

Language barriers are an added concern. Around 35% of low-literacy adults were born in other countries, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

NCES assessments also highlight the role of ethnicity in childhood literacy rates. About 52% of Black students in fourth grade and 45% of Hispanic fourth graders score below basic reading levels, compared to 23% of white students.

Excel by Eight Executive Director Angela Duran says many of the barriers to reading are rooted in early childhood development.

“Resources like quality early care and education, healthy food, physical and mental health services, safe housing and supportive relationships operate like a power grid and help brain development in the first few years of life so children can reach their full potential. Unfortunately, the grid of resources families need are often unevenly distributed within a community, making it difficult for them to access these critical health, family, education and community supports.”

Excel by Eight partners with families and communities to improve health care and education outcomes for Arkansas’ children ranging from prenatal to age 8. The Excel by Eight Foundations Collaborative includes more than 50 partners statewide who work to identify and address policy barriers to a strong life start for infants and toddlers, providing access to screenings, support services, early childhood education and home visits.

Excel by Eight’s early literacy programs include a “talk pedometer,” known as LENA, to measure conversational turns in Independence County’s pre-K classrooms. In the Horatio School District, a story walk and bilingual-born learning trail use public spaces to encourage literacy and physical activity.

"With early support, infants can grow into healthy kids who are confident, empathetic and ready for school and life,” Duran says. “And our communities, workforce and economy become stronger and more productive as a result."

Life Skills for Youth bookends the early development approach of Excel by Eight by focusing on school-aged children in its after-school mentoring programs. With ADE-certified teachers, one-on-one instruction and a focus on STEM learning, Life Skills for Youth helps enhance and augment a child’s education, but it also focuses on important elements of family life.

In addition to its After School Academy, it offers academies for Saturdays, summers, parents, career development, health and wellness, a community feeding program and more.

By involving parents, making sure students are fed and teaching things like time, anger and money management, Life Skills for Youth confronts a number of the societal issues that affect childhood literacy and lead to the negative outcomes, like crime and violence, that manifest in adulthood.

As an African-American from a single-parent home, Clark doesn’t believe upbringing and environment have to prevent a child from learning to read at grade level and having a quality life. Across all the state’s organizations working together, the resources and willpower exist, Clark says, to give kids a fighting chance.

“I can’t buy the ‘I’m Black, I’m white, I’m Latino or I live in this neighborhood,’” Clark says. “There may still be things going on in the house that may not allow students to do certain things, but as far as resources, there’s a ton of resources.”