County, city school leaders tackle childhood reading issues

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
A meeting of nearly three dozen county, city and education leaders Monday Monday focused on how to defeat a three-headed monster: poverty, adult illiteracy and children unable to read.
Experts say if a child can’t read by the third grade, that child will most often end up falling behind in school and eventually dropping out ó ending up unable to get a good job and, in many cases, going to jail.
Elected officials with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, the Salisbury City Council and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, along with staff members, spent two hours Monday exchanging ideas and trying to get a handle on how best to tackle the problem of hundreds of children in the community who can’t read and are virtually destined to be dropouts.
As the meeting progressed, the enormity of the problem took hold.
Kay Wright Norman, a longtime member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, said early childhood literacy is tied to adult literacy in the community.
“It’s a multi-generational issue,” she said. “Its not just teaching children. It’s ultimately teaching families.”
She and many others said unemployment, underemployment and poverty make literacy a very difficult challenge. Norman suggested the focus needs to be on adult illiteracy, which she called the “root of the problem.”
School officials and others said many children have no books or printed materials in their homes.
“We have an opportunity for a watershed moment for this community,” City Councilman Mark Lewis told the group. “We need to get a strategy … see what we can do. It’s not a failure of the school system. It’s a failure of the community. Poverty and illiteracy are daunting problems. We have got to break the cycle.”
Participants discussed a wide array of programs or strategies to help, ending up agreeing to come up with a short-term immediate program for the summer that could serve as a pilot.
A committee made up of council members, commissioners and school board members, along with staff, will meet and develop ideas for short- and long-term plans.
Among possible short-term plans is a “Barrels of Books,” where people will be asked to donate children’s books to be distributed to children for summer reading.
Salisbury City Manager David Treme suggested a series of community tutoring sessions at churches and other centers across the county, involving volunteers including retired school teachers.
Overall, officials commended the school system for its efforts in dealing with the challenge. They also stressed their commitment to work together however long it takes.
“This is not just political grandstanding. … I’ve been accused of it,” Carl Ford, chairman of the Board of Commissioners said. “Children need help.”
Ford said two civic groups are already committed to volunteer-tutoring programs. He went on to challenge other groups throughout the county, including churches, to step forward and help. Ford said he plans to work through the municipal association to challenge and involve all 10 Rowan municipalities.
Mayor Susan Kluttz called the joint meeting of the three boards historic.
“I don’t know that they have ever met as a group,” she said.
She noted that when the city school system merged with the county system nearly 20 years ago, it left the city struggling to find ways to help the school system.
Jean Kennedy, vice chairwoman of the school board, said the boards working together can improve the lives of children, families and future families.
Kennedy said by investing now in the literacy program, the county and city can save by not having to invest in the penal system.
County officials talked mostly of involving volunteers, while city and school officials repeatedly referred to investing dollars.
County Manager Gary Page said the county might have to redirect some resources.
Dr. Judy Grissom, superintendent of the school system, also noted recent cuts by the state that ended some tutoring programs.
The chairmen of the board of commissioners and school board and Kluttz will appoint members to a committee that will develop strategies and report back to the three boards.
Officials said they would like to have a summer initiative ready as soon as possible.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254.