Unable to Read in America

I entered the second grade unable to read. My teacher that year, Miss Beck, recalled for many years later how I introduced myself to her by saying, “My name is Kathy Schleich, I’m 7 years old, and I can’t read.” She always remembered it with a chuckle. Except it was far from funny. While I was able to catch up with my classmates, two things have always remained with me: I am a slower than average reader, and I often must reread difficult material several times before fully comprehending the meaning.

I was fortunate to have parents who believed in the power of education. I learned to read competently and went on to major in journalism, obtain a master’s degree in mass communications, teach on the community college level, and develop my love of writing into books and stories. That is also why statistics on illiteracy in America jump off the page at me. One in four American children grow up without learning to read.[1] Illiteracy leads to a disturbing cycle that becomes tough to break. Students who aren’t reading proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.[2] Two-thirds of students who cannot proficiently read by the end of fouth grade face the prospect of being on welfare or incarnated. Add to that sobering fact that 70 percent of America’s inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level.[3]

This disparity, coupled with my own late start, taught me that literacy in this country is far below what it needs to be. Prior to the pandemic, I volunteered with a St. Paul organization, the East Side Learning Center (ESLC), founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame. I served as a tutor for a couple of years, but as the above statistics indicate, many of these children faced obstacles at home that as a volunteer, I was not able to capably address.

Literacy remained close to my heart. By sheer luck I discovered Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute (PPGJLI) whose mission is three-fold: to plant seeds of social change through education, training, and community outreach. Literacy plays a huge role in the organization’s efforts to inspire youth through discovering the joys of reading and translating that passion into leadership. Knowledge, after all, is power. PPGJLI’s YouTube channel offers numerous examples of members reading to children, a wonderful example. I contribute as both a volunteer and financial supporter, helping the organization to promote education, literacy, cultural awareness, and leadership development for an equitable future.

As much as I enjoy reading, even as an adult I can still struggle. In depth articles in publications like The Atlantic Monthly often find me having trouble grasping the point being made. I may have to set the piece aside and come back later with a clear head. When I occasionally read Washington Post columnist, George Will, I always have a dictionary and thesaurus at the ready. He uses words I frequently have never heard of. When I catch myself feeling inferior, I remind myself that rather than be frustrated, look up what I don’t know, which increases my own literacy and knowledge. Just like me, every American deserves the opportunity to be literate and succeed.

[1] WriteExpress Corporation. “Literacy Statistics.” Begin to Read, Accessed April 16, 2014.
[2] Donald J. Hernandez, “Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
[3] WriteExpress Corporation. “Literacy Statistics.” Begin to Read, Access February 24, 2015.

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