MEMPHIS, Tenn — Tuesday is International Literacy Day and it's a reminder that more work needs to be done to improve the comprehension skills of children in the Mid-South.
According to the World Literacy Foundation, 773 million adults and young people lack basic literacy skills.
That need for improvement is just as significant in Shelby County. Only a quarter of third grade students in Shelby County Schools can read at the grade level according to state test results. SCS says students that can't read proficiently are four times as likely to drop out of high school.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SCS made improving literacy its top priority with the third grade commitment initiative.
"I always taught my kiddos, I said you can always be anything you want to be, you can be anything you want to become but first and foremost you have to become a great reader," Karen Vogelsang, a former SCS teacher, said.
Vogelsang is the current executive director of ARISE2Read and was the Tennessee Teacher of the Year in 2015.
ARISE2Read is a nonprofit that through the help of volunteers tutors students one hour peer week and provides books to enhance literacy.
Vogelsang said currently they're in the process of working with SCS to resume tutoring virtually. The hope is to start recruiting children in need of it towards the end of September.
With education being disrupted by the pandemic, Vogelsang fears students are at risk of falling more behind.
“This isn’t just a summer slide," she said. "This is a spring and summer slide and I know some children have had an opportunity to connect virtually over the summer in summer school, enrichment opportunities but we know that most of our kiddos don’t have access to devices. They don’t have access to internet.”
SCS began distributing digital devices and hot spots in August to prepare for virtual learning. Vogelsang said for teachers, developing relationships, is most important for learning.
“It is very challenging to have those kind of relationships in a virtual platform," she said. "You have a teacher on one side, looking at a screen of 20 or so students that becomes quite a challenge being able to really see what each child is doing, the schoolwork that day.”
To improve literacy skills in the Mid-South, Vogelsang said it will take a community-wide effort.
“You’re not only supporting a child, you’re supporting a family but the other part of it is you’re supporting Shelby County as a whole," she said.
According to SCS, 61% of children from low-income backgrounds do not have children's books at home.
Visit ARISE2Read.org to learn more about volunteering or to help supply books for children.
SCS also provides resources for parents at home to work on improving their child's literacy skills here.