As Americans, we are blessed by tax-funded institutions that provide free services. This point was emphasized for me recently when watching The First Grader. This is an uplifting story about an illiterate Kenyan man in his eighties who wishes to take advantage of a free primary education. In 2004, the Kenyan government offered free education to all who sought it. The man, Maruge, has to fight for his free education just as he once fought as a Mau Mau guerilla against British colonial rule fifty years earlier.
Since 2009, 300,000 education jobs have been lost due to state and local budget cuts, including many school librarians jobs. Libraries have seen record closures. Literacy programs have been defunded. Both schools and libraries have seen decreased hours and changes to their services. These two provide some of the most vital public services a community offers. Public libraries will feel the impact due to the decrease of school librarians. Students will feel the impact because that support at school has changed. They might have no school library, a library with fewer books and more computers or no books at all, or the library has turned into a study hall or social gathering place.
Its a strange conundrum that, at a time when we desperately need these institutions, cuts are being made. As a result, they are fighting to stay relevant and fighting for their very existence in todays economic climate. According to the Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children of the National Research Council, the educational careers of 25 to 40 percent of American children are imperiled because they dont read well enough, quickly enough, or easily enough. Poor literacy leads to a huge disparity that may be difficult to bridge. For example, if children read 1 million words per year, at least 1,000 words will be added to their vocabulary. By six years of age a child will have acquired a 5,000 to 20,000 word vocabulary. An average American adult knows about 30,000 to 60,000 words. You do the math.
Unfortunately, it is not unusual for some high school students to need five years to finish their coursework. As many as 36.2 percent, according to a 2007-08 figure, need remedial help in college. These students will have to compete in a global market. As of 2009, twelfth grade students reading performance, at proficiency level, was 37 percent.
Why these dismal statistics? Why this apathy? Is it our high-tech society? Trends like video games? The day-to-day struggle to provide for our families? Our peers and families not placing importance on reading? Perhaps some of each. Some high-tech gadgets are time-consuming and reading has gone to the wayside due to something else taking up our leisure time. If children dont read outside of school they are losing incrementally.
We know the formula for change. Its no secret. It starts at home. Families who emphasize reading and visit libraries on a regular basis build lifelong supports for literacy skills and student achievement. Students who read well are more successful in all school subjects. Involved families and good reading habits make a world of difference. What resources are there outside the family unit? The answer is schools and libraries.
Parents who model good reading habits, keep children away from distractions when they read or do their homework and who emphasize reading comprehension provide the building blocks children need. When the child is a baby, reading to them and engaging them in stories helps build vocabulary. Talking to wchildren and interacting with them improves oral language in literacy development. Parents and family members who are advocates for their children from day one provide the skills needed to succeed in life and school. Bringing a child to the library on a regular basis is an excellent way to inspire lifelong learning. Reading instills confidence, pride and a thirst for knowledge.
Why dont we avail ourselves of these services? For many low-income families, resources, time and energy are stretched thin. Putting food on the table trumps everything. But, for these families, institutions like schools and libraries are lifelines. Yet many of the services provided by both are under-utilized and under-valued.
Take a moment, walk through the door and spend some time talking with your childs teacher or with a librarian. Avail yourself of their services. Get your child a library card. Make your childs life different than yours. In doing so, yours will change as well. Ben Franklin put it best: Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.
Maruge? Maruge prevailed. With the help of a teacher. This movie is available at your library. All one has to do is take the first step and walk through the door. Maruge did.
Laura McHenry is the childrens librarian at the Cortez Public Library, 202 N. Park St. She can be reached at 565-8117.