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Addressing Detroit's illiteracy issue

Denise Smith
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By Denise Smith, Vice President for Early Learning, Excellent Schools Detroit
November 10, 2014

How can the Detroit of today build its future generation to be the most successful, healthiest, and best educated yet?

We talk about and make great claims about fixing education in Detroit; however, we tend to do very little to acknowledge that education is not an issue that can be “fixed” or “solved” absent an approach that includes families along with students. In fact, I posit that if we start focusing more on the adults in and around education, we would see more progress. Every day in my work I encounter teachers, professionals, and parents who cannot read. So all the rhetoric in the world about educating our young feels very hollow to me when I know many of those at the front lines, those expected to “fix” it, themselves need remediation.

The fact of the matter is that the adult illiteracy rate in this city is astounding. “Detroit's population fell by 25 percent in the last decade. And of those that stuck around, nearly half of them are functionally illiterate” – Report by Detroit Regional Workforce (DRWF), July, 2013. “According to estimates by The National Institute for Literacy, roughly 47 percent of adults in Detroit, Michigan -- 200,000 total -- are ‘functionally illiterate,’ meaning they have trouble with reading, speaking, writing and computational skills. Even more surprisingly, the DRWF finds that half of that illiterate population has obtained a high school degree.”

There’s much data to support the fact that many adults, products of the city’s educational systems, cannot read. So yes, these same adults who are ill-equipped for the world are having children, are teaching children, and make up this city’s socio-economic base. They were screwed by our collective lack of caring. The problem, though, is not Detroit’s alone and is more widespread in this state and nation than we care to publicize. These parents are victims and should not be subjected to further ridicule or shame for revealing their shortfalls, for wanting to read, and, in the process, actively support the education of their children by something that many of us may take for granted – simply reading a bedtime story to a little one.

Yes, there are existing programs to support the stakeholder groups mentioned, but too often there is no synergy between them and no clear avenues to connect the dots toward creating stronger referrals and program access. These issues coupled with a lack of sensitivity by practitioners to the social determinants of illiteracy – and more grandly, poverty -- thwart uptake in social programming rendering many programs without impact.  Our practices and approaches must change if we are to break this generational cycle.

I believe that in order for us to affect real change – to break a generational cycle of low-literacy – we must approach education with several generations in mind.  We must support parents, caregivers and even educators in their own development to reach the outcomes to which we aspire for our children. 

In my work, we have taken a first step to support the effectiveness of educators of children, birth to age eight, but there are so many others – parents including teen parents, grandparents and caregivers - that still need our innovative, collective support. Developing and maintaining respectful relationships is the foundation for working effectively as professionals, yet many practitioners fail to employ this fundamental key to success. The reasons given may vary, however, I believe it boils down to our fear of the unfamiliar and perceptions formed from this state. Fear negates intimacy; doesn’t allow us to truly engage with others.  If we are to truly and respectfully engage adults in becoming a community of fearless, active learners for themselves, their children and the generations to come, we must first set aside our own fears.

I am thankful for my life experiences that afford me a level of empathy that comes from knowing what it’s like to not have finances, to struggle for yourself and your children. Nowadays, when trying to assist someone in resolving a paradox that to me seems inconceivable, or perhaps unnecessary, I pause to reflect on how the situation came to be. What were the circumstances that could have led up to this moment? If I walked that same path is it possible that I could arrive at the same destination?  

This reflection allows me to not blame or shame the person, but rather hold a microscope to the catalytic conditions. Does this formula apply in all cases? Certainly not, but more often than you could imagine. Our political, legal, racial and educational systems have perpetuated many of our societal ails. Trust, no one wakes up and decides, “I think I’ll be poor today!” A mother knowing that she can’t feed her children because she can’t read well enough to complete a job application is not an elective.

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