Reading Opens New Doors in Life

By Luis Santana

Executive Director

As states and school districts focus on the president's "Race to the Top" initiative, it's important to remember why some children languish at the "bottom."

These are children like 9-year-olds Sergio and Jovani in Fresno. When I first met them, their biggest fear was getting called on to read aloud in class.

Embarrassed by their inability to read, the two boys didn't like going to school. They had fallen behind and, according to the odds, reached a critical fork in the road, with one path leading to dropping out, gangs, and prison.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly half of California's fourth-grade students are below basic proficiency in reading. And if students have not learned to read by the fourth grade, only one in 10 ever will.

The majority of illiterate students drop out and live on public assistance at some point. They are the most vulnerable targets for gang recruitment, will have minimal job skills and many will develop substance abuse problems. These are all factors leading to crime and incarceration for years -- or life -- and this comes at a high cost that our cities and state simply cannot afford. The cost in lives is even more heartbreaking.

Two years ago, Sergio and Jovani were at a crossroads, but today both are on the path to success. How did this turnaround happen? Put simply, they learned how to read. But the "how" is the real lesson learned.

Ten years ago, I founded Reading and Beyond in Fresno. After working with poor children in Brazil and Colombia, I learned firsthand that reading was a door out of one life and into another more prosperous one.

So I created an organization that took into account some of the unique factors that prevent many children from succeeding in school. For example, agencies, teachers and school administrators told us that children failed in school because they could not read and because parents were not involved. In a community where many parents speak little English and have minimal access to transportation, solving the problem was going to take some creativity.

If getting kids to tutoring is a problem, having multiple, convenient locations in the community is the solution. The children began trickling in to our sites at schools and churches to read with our tutors, and today 70% of those who participate for six months improve at least one grade level in reading. Jovani improved two grade levels.

But reading wasn't the only challenge. To empower parents to become more involved, we began classes and workshops -- in the parents' native languages -- about navigating the school system, working with teachers and creating a home environment conducive to learning. We secured funding for a recreational vehicle outfitted with tables and chairs. We parked the RV at supermarkets, apartment complexes, churches and schools -- convenient places for parents.

To date, nearly 17,000 parents have participated. One of those was Sergio's mom, who learned how to continue at home what her son was learning at tutoring and school. Sergio is now reading above his grade level.

But for every success story like Sergio's and Jovani's, there are more children who fall through the cracks, leading to a devastating waste of potential, lives and money.

Students and schools will always struggle if we do not find creative ways to ensure that literacy takes root at a young age.

Cost-effective tutoring programs and multilingual parent information and outreach are simple investments that will save our state money and, more importantly, mean a brighter future for our children -- at the top.


This editorial was published in The Sacramento Bee Newspaper (Viewpoints) and its website on February 27, 2010, and in The Fresno Bee Newspaper (Opinion: Valley Voices) and its website on March 6, 2010.