Many Chicago Public Schools students struggle with illiteracy. The consequences are devastating.

When a child is reeling from stress, trauma or hardship, the thinking part of their brain shuts down. Our money should be spent on high-dosage tutoring and other individualized approaches that are effective against illiteracy.

SHARE Many Chicago Public Schools students struggle with illiteracy. The consequences are devastating.
CPS (Chicago Public Schools) students at a computer

Chicago Public Schools has a long way to go to improve literacy for low-income students.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Chicago, it is time to sound the alarm about our illiteracy epidemic.

According to the 2023 Chicago Public Schools state report card, only 12.2% of low-income third graders were reading at grade level. We are depriving children of their futures. And we’re all going to pay the price.

While part of this can be attributed to the catastrophic failure of remote learning during the pandemic, the illiteracy epidemic has plagued Chicago’s most vulnerable students for decades.

Why does this matter? On-track reading by the end of third grade is a key indicator of a child’s likelihood to graduate from high school.

Literacy opens a child’s world. When a child is literate, school is a welcoming place where they can learn and flourish. When a child struggles to read and is left behind, school becomes alienating. To compensate for an inability to read, children will often act out, disrupt, disengage and ultimately drop out.

If a child doesn’t feel welcome in school, they’ll seek a welcoming place elsewhere. They become prime targets to be recruited by gangs who are more than happy to make the child feel welcome and valued for exactly who they are today.

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It’s not hard to see how illiteracy becomes a direct pipeline to violence and incarceration.

There is an alarming correlation between low literacy, dropping out of school and incarceration. Eighty-five percent of youth involved with the courts are functionally illiterate. According to the U.S. Justice Department: “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure.”

In Illinois, the cost to incarcerate a youth for one year is $187,765. There are countless other ways to measure the economic impact, but the cost is far more than economic. Illiteracy is a moral failing. Success in school, employment and life is utterly dependent on the ability to read and write.

High-quality teachers, evidence-based curriculum and access to authentic and diverse representation in books are all necessary — but not sufficient — support for children born into the most challenging circumstances. If a child is hungry or reeling from a violent event, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the curriculum is; their body and brain are not in a state to learn.

When a child is reeling from stress, trauma or hardship, the thinking part of their brain shuts down and the brain’s stress response system takes over. What this looks like varies — from disruptive behavior to disengagement — but far too often is treated as a behavior issue.

Meeting a child’s basic needs

Literacy development begins by first ensuring that a child’s basic needs are met, making sure they feel safe and are in a calm brain state. Only then can they access their “thinking brain” or cortex, the home of cognitive learning where literacy development takes place. Far too many children are missing this vital, yet commonly overlooked, precondition to learning.

It is not surprising that there is recent excitement about the effectiveness of “high dosage” tutoring, which is defined as one-on-one or very small group instruction several times a week that is consistently led by the same professionally trained person. Its success is rooted in the trusting relationship between the child and the tutor.

When a child feels safe and has a sense of belonging with a person they know cares about them, their brain state calms, and they can then access the thinking part of their brain. A trained professional can pivot as needed between guiding a child to a calm brain state by addressing their physical and emotional well-being and teaching.

The only way to ensure that the children facing the most challenging lives are in a brain state to learn is by providing them with authentic, individual relationships from the time they start school. Every child needs someone tuned into their needs. Teachers working with a full classroom cannot provide this level of support. Schools can provide more social workers and case managers to regularly work with individual students. Schools can also partner with community organizations that provide individualized, professional tutors or mentors.

There are no quick fixes to this illiteracy crisis. You cannot give a sprinkling of support to a child who has experienced significant trauma and expect to get results. While the data shows that individualized approaches are the most effective, they have been criticized as too expensive. In fact, we are already spending the money, but we’re spending it on disciplinary and punitive measures, and on incarcerating juveniles and adults. But we can make better choices about how we spend our money.

All children can learn when provided with proper support. Let’s invest in our children and teach them — thoughtfully, effectively, compassionately — to read.

Taal Hasak-Lowy is executive director of Friends of the Children, a professional mentoring program in Chicago.

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