Buffalo News, February 10, 2008: Illiterate children: Poor beyond words

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Andre Vernor is only 10, but he۪s got a big dream.

He wants to open up a barber shop of his own someday.

The only problem is, if that۪s going to happen, Andre needs to learn how to read and write and handle money.

And right now, he۪s struggling with that. His dad used to teach Andre how to count out change: nickels, dimes, dollars. But his dad is in jail.

A family friend who owned a Ferry Street barbershop, and let Andre work a few hours a week sweeping up hair and chatting with customers, was killed in a shooting on the West Side.

But still, he keeps trying. “I don۪t like reading, but if I have to, I do,” says Andre, a fourth-grader with a cherubic smile and a bent for mischief. “I can۪t wait to cut hair. I want to be paying my mom۪s bills when I۪m older.”

Whether Andre Vernor ever learns enough to open a barber shop may seem trivial.

It۪s not. It matters to his future, and to that of the city he lives in.

Today, nearly two-thirds of adults in Buffalo function at the two lowest levels of literacy, research shows.

That means they may be able to find the expiration date on a driver۪s license, or use a TV schedule, but they can۪t function at the minimum level of literacy that employers in Western New York now require for any job higher than entry level.

Among children, the numbers are equally disturbing.

Half of all children entering the city۪s prekindergarten classrooms are not ready for school, data show, because they have limited language abilities and can۪t identify basic shapes or letters.

Many of these children don۪t even know their own names.

By fourth grade, 60 percent of city schoolchildren have fallen behind in reading ability a percentage that only increases as they get older.

That۪s why the literacy skills that Andre Vernor is gaining now matter.

Literacy among Buffalo۪s children 43 percent of whom live in poverty, according to census estimates will affect the future of the region for at least a generation, according to experts here and around the country.

“If Buffalo can۪t do something to help those parents get out of poverty and help these children succeed,” said Sharon Darling, director of the National Center for Family Literacy in Kentucky, “it۪s going to eat away at the quality of your whole community.”

Fighting illiteracy in Buffalo is proving to be a tough, uphill struggle.

Those involved say the problem here is deeply entrenched.

“There۪s this intergenera- tional cycle of illiteracy in Buffalo,” said Helene Kramer, executive director of Good Schools for All, a community partnership for quality education that has set a goal of 100 percent literacy in the city. “It۪s a huge problem.”

But that doesn۪t mean it۪s unsolvable, observers said.

And that, they said, should be a priority for Buffalo if the city wants to change the face of poverty here.

“Illiteracy is really about poverty,” Darling said. “You can۪t separate the two they۪re woven together so tightly.”

A closed book

In poorer sections of the city, it۪s not unusual for people to know someone a relative, a friend, a child who can۪t read or write. Rather, it is commonplace.

“I know a lot of people who can۪t read,” said Margaret Clark, 47, a resident of the city۪s Langfield projects. She was illiterate herself for many years after dropping out of high school when she got pregnant at 16.

State tests show that the 60 percent of all fourth-graders who can۪t read with proficiency increases to 67 percent by eighth grade.

It۪s a problem seen all over the city especially in poorer areas by those who work with children.

“I۪ve got 10-year-olds that can۪t tell me their home phone numbers or where they live,” said Chris Payne, director of the Babcock Clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club on Babcock Street on the East Side. “My 5-to 7- year-olds, they۪re just not where they should be. They can۪t read. They can۪t comprehend.”

Among ninth-graders, 39 percent of all those entering city high schools won۪t graduate.

That leads to more problems when high school dropouts start having babies of their own.

Clark raised her four children before taking the first step out of an illiteracy so severe she used to have to ask clerks in the grocery store to read food labels for her. What motivated her was a growing family of nine grandchildren who needed help with their homework. Now, after two years of tutoring, she can read and considers herself literate.

“I felt bad,” Clark said of her years of illiteracy. “Kids would look at me like, you۪re a grown person and you can۪t read. I came from nothing to where I am now.”

One of the highest risk factors for illiteracy among Buffalo۪s children is being born to a woman who doesn۪t have a high school diploma, experts said.

Right now in the city, that۪s 1,000 babies each year.

Parents overwhelmed

Why does a child in a poor household struggle to become literate?

There are several factors that come into play.

Many poor children in Buffalo are growing up in single-parent homes, and the parent or grandparent they live with is too overburdened or otherwise absent to spend time talking to and teaching the child.

Laquita Harris, Andre Vernor۪s mom, tries her best to see that her son learns, but she۪s stretched thin between work and school.

“I just want to tell my kids, they want to have a different type of life,” she said. “Not being without nothing. I want them to be responsible, to work and have a job.”

It۪s also a matter of resources. Children in Buffalo۪s poorest homes don۪t have books, magazines, counting toys, or other items that build literacy skills.

In the city today, 22 percent of children are growing up in “extreme poverty,” a form of poverty so deep it means living on less than half the federal poverty standard or about $10,000 a year for a family of four.

That leaves little money for a new book. Often in these homes, TV becomes the baby sitter. But kids don۪t learn literacy skills from watching TV, experts said.

“Children in low-income families watch a lot of TV. They tend not to hear words being spoken to them,” Kramer said. “These kids aren۪t coming into school with any oral vocabularies. We now know that at least half of kids come in already at risk.”

Groundbreaking research on childhood literacy found that what matters most is how many words the child hears spoken, in the first formative years, by adults. Huge discrepancies exist between low-income and middle-class families in this respect, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley demonstrated in their land- mark 1995 book “Meaningful Differences.”

Children in families headed by parents who were professionals heard 11 million words spoken to them over one year۪s time, the research found. Kids in working-class families heard 6 million. Kids in welfare households heard just 3 million.

By age 3, researchers found, a typical child growing up in a professional home can speak and comprehend better than the parents in a welfare home.

Reading to a better life

The parents of Buffalo۪s poor children want more for their kids. Some say they see literacy as one ticket to a better life.

Like Charlene Wilson, 40. She has lived in South Buffalo her whole life, most of it on the same street. She works part-time as a cook and bartender at a neighborhood tavern.

Wilson said she wants her 12-year-old daughter, Megan, to achieve more than she has in life. Have a good marriage and a good job, maybe even go to college.

“I۪m hoping she gets some kind of a scholarship for college,” Wilson said, “because I۪m not going to be able to help her.”

Megan, a slim girl with straight auburn hair, likes to spend time playing with her cat, Angel, and hanging out with her friends. She۪s average in school. In her spare time, she۪s reading a book called “The Uglies,” but she۪d much rather watch TV.

“I like TV better,” Megan said. “It۪s more fun.”

Opportunities for broader learning haven۪t panned out for Megan so far.

Three times, she has been invited to participate in an overseas trip as a “Student Ambassador” for the United States, through the People to People program. And every time her mom has said no, because of the $3,000 cost of the trip.

“She would۪ve visited five countries,” Wilson said, “but I just can۪t afford to send her.”

The travel would have built more literacy skills in Megan especially in a world where literacy is no longer defined as just being able to read well.

Today, literacy means a broader skill set: everything from being able to tell time, to understanding a schedule, to operating a computer, to being able to compare the prices of two items.

“Unless somebody really takes the time to reach an arm in and pull you out of that cycle of illiteracy, you۪re going to be marked for life,” said Tracy Diina, director of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo and Erie County. “You have these kids who could be geniuses underneath. It۪s like a net is placed over them.”

Not ready to work

At a conference on literacy in Buffalo last fall, employers from around Western New York said that literacy is a major problem for them when it comes to hiring people.

According to the most recent research undertaken in the city, by the National Adult Literacy Survey, in the 1990s, 61 percent of adults in Buffalo function at the two most basic levels of literacy. Follow-up research in 2002 on the state level showed that the problem had not improved, although numbers specific to Buffalo have not been released yet.

Employers said that in 2008, any job higher than entry-level work requires more literacy skill than those adults have.

That۪s why people like John Jones will likely be out of work for quite a while.

Jones grew up on Peckham Street on the East Side. Only three of the eight children in his family grew up knowing how to read.

He dropped out of public school at 16 he thinks he might have reached 10th grade, but isn۪t sure and worked as a laborer for a while.

He۪s been on social services disability income for 10 years because of his illiteracy, some health problems, and the fact that he has struggled with addictions.

Jones, who lives off Michigan Avenue, said he probably won۪t ever hold a good job. He has smaller goals: to get a driver۪s permit; to be able to navigate buses and street signs in order to take his two young daughters to an indoor playground.

The one bright spot in his life right now is watching his daughters surpass him.

“When I was 7, I wasn۪t able to read anything. I was like a toy without a battery,” said Jones. “My 7-year-old can write good. She even writes me letters.”

Starting early

The “Read to Succeed Buffalo” partnership has begun in recent months an intensive effort to figure out what will work to turn around the city۪s illiteracy crisis.

The idea is to come up with effective models that can then be replicated all over the city, said Kramer, who heads Good Schools for All, a program of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. The foundation, officials there said, is investing more in the literacy project than in any other undertaking in its 88-year history.

“We have begun,” Kramer said. “One hundred percent literacy means we help everyone. We are working with that goal helping everyone.”

One new idea being put into action involves reaching out to children at the very earliest stages of life, in day care settings, including home day cares, to introduce books and early learning methods.

Another project involves the creation of a “literacy hot zone” in the 14215 ZIP code, which includes a swath of northeast Buffalo off the Kensington Expressway that stretches into the Cleveland Hill area of Cheektowaga.

In that zone, literacy programs are being intensified in order to see if a deepened effort can turn around the literacy levels in a few targeted neighborhoods, Kramer said.

The East Delavan Library has become a focal point of some of those outreach efforts.

There, library manager Jamie Smith said the new efforts are being received well so far. Workshops on financial and computer literacy have drawn big crowds. Children۪s programming is also popular.

But it۪s going to take a lot to turn around a problem of such magnitude, Smith said.

Every day, she says, people come into the library for help with basic tasks, like looking up a phone number in the phone book, or reading a printed form.

She helps them. But she۪s only one person.

“We۪re a community in need,” said Smith. “I see people every day that are functionally illiterate.

“That۪s hard.”

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