Literacy & Justice for All
By Ryan Lee-James, PhD, Director of the Rollins Center for Language & Literacy and Laura Bollman, Director of Operations, the Rollins Center.
Since the advent of the written word, which created the need for reading, literacy has been wielded as a tool of power and one of oppression. Who is taught to read – and who is forbidden from learning to read? Who is granted access and who is denied?
In America today, literacy is a necessity to unlock life’s potential, and yet, less than 35% of children can read proficiently.
The American literacy crisis affects all children across every demographic. This crisis – like all societal inequities – impacts our Black, Brown, poor and multilingual children the most. Less than 18% of Black children and less than 21% of Hispanic children read proficiently – and we reject the commonly accepted implications that this national failure is the onus of any child, family, or teacher. The responsibility for our illiteracy crisis falls squarely on the systems that have knowingly withheld, and those that have refused to implement, the settled body of evidence and vast interdisciplinary sciences which make up the Science of Reading.
We know that 95% of all children can learn to read with evidence-based structured literacy practices (the Science of Reading). When we consider that it is possible for 95% of our children to read but only 35% of children are reading today, we are called to raise our voices on behalf of the 54 million young people who are locked out of their own lives.
At the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy (a program of the Atlanta Speech School) and our free online Cox Campus, we are committed to the construction of the deep reading brain for all children, from the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, through language development to literacy.
We align ourselves with the philosophies of deep literacy and deep reading described by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and Dr. Maryanne Wolf. In Wolf’s book Reader, Come Home, she articulates deep reading as being beyond society’s widely accepted standard of “proficiency” to a more meaningful goal, one beyond decoding, reading fluency and literal comprehension. The goal is a deeper, more analytic brain – a brain that thinks critically and takes the perspective of others while feeling empathy for their plight. A deep reading brain demonstrates personal reflection as it imagines a better choice, a better idea, and a better world. Muhammad extends this philosophy, in Cultivating Genius, describing reading and writing as “transformative acts that improve self and society-” essential for a person to “read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression.”
During Black History Month and every month, we are motivated and regard the Black literary societies raised by Dr. Muhammad as our North Star for all children regardless of zip code, race, or ethnicity. The betterment of humanity, advancement of democracy and achievement of liberty are dependent on a literate citizenry, which we are obligated to achieve – for our future.
- America’s illiteracy crisis is not the fault of teachers, families or children. We reject the narrative that continues to plague disenfranchised communities.
- We assert that a family or caregiver is not responsible for teaching their child to read – structured and evidence-based reading instruction is the responsibility of our schools.
- We reject 3rd grade as the standard by which all children should achieve literate language; which is to say that we need a system which allows that not every child arrives at reading at the same time.
- We assert that all children, inclusive of all backgrounds, have inherent strengths and rich experiences. We believe it is the responsibility of educational systems to draw out those strengths and cultivate the unlimited human potential of each child for academic success.
- We reject that the illiteracy crisis is a ‘Black issue’. While Black children have paid the greatest price, given the systemic denial of education in the South and elsewhere – the persistent national data across all demographics indicates this crisis is not limited to any one group of children.
- We reject the assertion that children cannot have a language-based learning disability (such as dyslexia) if the learning challenge could be a result of “environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage” (quoted from the federal special education law, IDEA 2004, 34 CFR 300.307). This definition is used to withhold special education services from Black, Brown, poor and multilingual children to which they are entitled by federal law.
As a comprehensive response to this persistent systemic failure, the Cox Campus democratizes the sciences of healthy brain development, language and reading – making coursework, content and community free to all. We are committed to literacy and justice for all. We do this through an equity-based learning platform where together we build the expertise and agency needed so that every adult can play a role in helping each child find their voice and live boldly to reshape the world.
Literacy denied is access, equity and justice denied. We see states across the nation elevating the importance of the Science of Reading through reading legislation. Simply put, READ Acts address evidence-based training for teachers and allocates public dollars to curriculum and resources grounded in the Science of Reading so that all students learn to read and thrive. We invite you to join us today as an ally in literacy and justice for all of Georgia’s children. Email us to learn more and make a difference firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) In Atlanta, in 2019, prior to the pandemic shuttering schools, these rates translated to 76% of white children, 16% Black and 23% Hispanic children reading on or above grade level by fourth grade. For children eligible for free or reduced lunch, 15%.