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The Struggle, The Solution

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Early Childhood Education Spells Success

By Natalie-Claire Lyda, Junior League of Atlanta

Natalie-Claire Lyda, Junior League of Atlanta

Natalie-Claire Lyda, Junior League of Atlanta

Georgia is one of only seven states in the country that provides high-quality childcare to over half of its resident four- year-olds. Atlanta’s specific efforts to address the correlation between childhood literacy and adult poverty are just now beginning to investigate outside factors that are possible contributors to low graduation and high crime rates. One influence may only be a family member away and it is a factor Atlanta nonprofits have been addressing for decades.

Atlanta faces a significant and ongoing two-generation literacy struggle, as cyclical and notoriously difficult to break as multigenerational poverty. In both cases, children whose parents are affected by one of these issues are likely to face their own literacy or poverty challenges as adults. Compounding the issue is the well-known, longstanding fact that lower literacy rates are directly related to a higher likelihood of poverty. Despite the daunting task of battling a longstanding cyclical issue, a handful of community groups in Atlanta, including The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc. (JLA) with a century of service championing early childhood education initiatives, offer solutions to address these concerns.

Junior League of Atlanta volunteers working with children on a story related craft activity.

Junior League of Atlanta volunteers working with children on a story related craft activity.

Founded in 2009, Journey to Literacy is the signature JLA community project focused on early childhood education. Journey to Literacy has twenty volunteers who commit to reading books and developing story-related activities, such as crafts, for monthly events at six libraries throughout Atlanta and Fulton County. Volunteers co-host events with other JLA members serving nonprofits, including Families First, The Ronald McDonald House and Whitefoord. The members are building fine motor skills and increasing early literacy skills for the children in attendance.

The Journey to Literacy program, however, takes reading to children to another level by addressing the generational low-literacy issue. For participants’ parents, the events serve as examples of how parents can connect activities with books in order to spark interest in reading. As a result, volunteers create an even larger impact by not only increasing the children’s likelihood of future literacy-related success, but narrowing the generational gap by incorporating the parents into the program.

Literacy Action, a long term JLA community partner provides General Educational Development (GED), English as a Second Language (ESL) and other literacy programs to adults, created an opportunity that addresses family literacy issues.  While there are many opportunities to support the education that local children are receiving, those children are bringing assignments and questions home to what Austin Dickson, Literacy Action’s Executive Director, refers to as low-literate parents or caretakers. So they created a solution. Literacy Action meets with parents for a Homework Help class to make sure that the older generation in a low-literate family is better equipped to assist younger family members and ideally break the cycle of generational low-literacy.

Journey to Literacy volunteers handing out books and reading to kids at Goblins in the Garden at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

Journey to Literacy volunteers handing out books and reading to kids at Goblins in the Garden at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

Dickson puts it simply, “Literacy is everywhere. Most of us take literacy for granted. It is something that is invisible. On one hand, it is hard see and get your hands around; on the other hand, it is everywhere”.  He goes on to say, “Every year, between a quarter and a third of Fulton, DeKalb, and Atlanta City high school students are not graduating. And that has happened for decades. So now we have a whole underclass of folks in the Atlanta region that don’t have a high school degree, because they were behind from the beginning.”

It is clear why the collaboration between JLA and Literacy Action is so strong especially when one considers low literacy and poverty go hand in hand. “If you are poor, you are not necessarily a low literacy adult, but if you are a low literacy adult, you are certainly living in poverty,” shares Dickson.  Literacy Action’s Workforce Literacy and GED programs allow adults in disenfranchised neighborhoods to prepare for enrollment in programs that are currently out there via other organizations, but often unattainable due to low literacy levels.

The statement Dickson makes in summarizing the potential impact that Literacy Action could make in the city of Atlanta may just as easily serve as the mission statement for Journey to Literacy: “We can literally; through the power of education, change someone’s trajectory in life.”

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