As our communities strive for a new sense of post-pandemic normalcy, the list of areas affected by lockdowns and isolation efforts appears to grow by the day. The health of our friends and families, the economy, and housing are all issues that have seemed to take center stage. But how have years spent away from conventional pre-K and elementary school settings affected children’s literacy?
Typically, students already experience what educators refer to as ‘the summer learning lag.’ Most children spend the summer months playing with friends and splashing in swimming pools, leaving the lessons of the school year behind. While this time away from a continuous learning environment has an expected impact on student progress, new pandemic-related challenges are cropping up in classrooms throughout our region.
Finding ways to work together to help Lea County children meet literacy benchmarks is important for many reasons. Data shows that third grade is a pivotal moment for students and current studies indicate that post-pandemic, one-third of children are not reading at grade level. Those who lack reading proficiency by this grade are four times more likely to not complete their high school education. And the numbers are even more staggering for children of color. Black and Hispanic children who are not reaching third grade literacy benchmarks are twice as likely to not graduate as their white classmates who come from similar backgrounds. Additionally, children living in poverty level conditions for only one year of their lives are six times less likely to reach the high school graduation milestone.
While this data can be sobering, we believe the power of collaboration can help set students up for lifelong success. By engaging with community partners such as school districts, early intervention therapy providers, libraries, legislators, city leaders, nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders, the JF Maddox Foundation is working on a Community Solutions Action Plan (CSAP) within the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. The first step of this initiative is to conduct a data-walk to determine where our community stands in relation to school readiness and grade-level reading. Once we have a baseline established, a plan can be developed to get children and families on the path to grade-level readiness by the end of third grade. Through these partnerships, we can use a multi-prong approach and work together to help encourage parent engagement, student attendance, and increase participation in afterschool and summer programs.
Aside from traditional school-based programs, there are also other important initiatives that can make a world of difference for children before they ever step foot in their first classroom. Much of a child’s learning is done in the first three to five years of their life. The speaking, talking, singing, and reading aloud that we conduct with infants and toddlers during this time –also known as the emergent literacy phase– can strengthen their academic success. Because of this, programs such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library administered by Children and Family Services of Lea County are instrumental in providing tools for literacy readiness. The program mails an age-appropriate monthly book to Lea County children at no cost to their families, allowing them to build home libraries for young learners. The JF Maddox Foundation also invested in Jal Bright Beginnings, an early child development center at Jal Public Schools, to help support emergent literacy activities and bring childcare to a community that lacked this important resource.
We are all learning to navigate this new landscape that is the post-pandemic rebuilding stage. And we also know that when we come together, we have the ability to tackle grade-level reading issues so that our children have a greater likelihood of graduating from high school and are prepared for healthier, successful futures. By working closely with partners and stakeholders and investing in opportunities that grow and nurture high-quality educational experiences, together we have the power to make a difference for the children of Lea County.
Mayra Lovas is a Senior Program Officer at the JF Maddox Foundation, a private family foundation in Lea County, New Mexico. Alongside its partners, the foundation invests in education, social services, and community development for a greater quality of life for Lea County residents.