The literacy gap in Alabama

By C. Audrey Harper

The phrase “at least we’re not Mississippi” rings true for literacy in Alabama. Alabama is ranked 47 out of 50 in education quality, with 25 percent of Alabamians functionally illiterate, according to U.S. News and World Report and The Literacy Council of West Alabama.

Tuscaloosa City Schools Public Relations Coordinator Lesley Bruinton said the school system’s goal is to close the achievement gap between those living and not living in poverty.

“In order for students to be successful they [need to] have strong reading skills. Up until third grade you’re learning to read, but after third grade, you’re reading to learn,” she said. “If your skills are not strong, you’re going to struggle. How successful can they be in the workforce if their reading skills aren’t strong? [We need] make sure we provide the right support [for them] to be successful and confident readers.”

“In order for students to be successful they [need to] have strong reading skills.”

According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, about 16 percent of children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade do not graduate from high school on time.

Reading proficiency data for Tuscaloosa City Schools grades 3-8, 10 (data from the Alabama Department of Education)

“We don’t really have a philosophy of teaching to the test. We want students to learn and to grow throughout the school year and that’s what our teachers are working on so that our students can be prepared,” Bruinton said. “We do want to provide the interventions a student needs to be successful. So if a student is not showing proficiency, then what additional teaching strategies need to be implemented so that they can become confident readers?”

The Tuscaloosa City Schools system uses a three-tiered response to a lack of reading proficiency: Tier I is whole group instruction, Tier II is small groups and Tier III is individualized attention, as well as Book Buddies, an after school program, where volunteers tutor second graders in reading.

Struggling readers, however, have plenty of options for assistance available in the West and Central Alabama communities.

The Literary Council of West Alabama, for example, provides books to Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre, Books2PrisonsMinistry, Aliceville Elementary School and Little Libraries. WBHM, a Birmingham area radio station, provides a reading radio service to the visually impaired.

According to SummaSource, functional illiteracy causes loss of productivity and high employee turnover skills among workers. Low literacy rates are also associated with poverty, high infant mortality, child death, high teen violent death rates, large numbers of high school dropouts, high rates of teen pregnancy and crime.

Bruinton said children who have disabilities or are economically disadvantaged are the most absent.

“Students who are economically disadvantaged are unable to come to school or … have transportation issues in the home. Students with disabilities have more medical appointments they have to go to,” Bruinton said.

In the Tuscaloosa City Schools system 73 percent of students are on Free or Reduced Lunch, according to the Alabama Department of Education. Closing the achievement gap can be a tricky situation for Tuscaloosa City educators. However, rural Pike County, which has raised its test scores significantly despite economic hardships, relies on a different method than most.

Mark Head, an administrator who oversees prevention and support services with Pike County Schools, told that data meetings need to center around the needs of the individual students, not the subgroups they are testing.

Lisa Blackmon, a youth librarian at the Madison Public Library,  said she encourages people of all ages to read and not to be self conscious about their reading level.

“I think the library is one of the last remaining great equalizers where kids from any background can come and experience so many different things and all they need to do is get themselves in the building,” she said. “Reading itself can be a great way for kids to experience the same thing in a totally different way in one book.”