Task force tackles literacy for all ages

Published 9:00 pm Friday, January 27, 2017

More than a quarter of Beaufort County residents are functionally illiterate. Last year, only 23.3 percent of all 11th-graders in Beaufort County Schools met the reading benchmark indicating they’re college ready; the state measurement is 31.8 percent.

It’s a concern for many: educators, employers, literacy volunteers. It’s also the latest project being tackled by Beaufort County 360, a collaboration of agencies, organizations and individuals addressing adverse quality of life issues in the county. On this literacy task force are representatives from Beaufort County Schools, Beaufort County Community College, local libraries, Beaufort-Hyde Partnership for Children, Literacy Volunteers of Beaufort County and more, all banding together to address literacy from early childhood to adulthood.

“This task force is really about family literacy, but the focus is on youth,” said Penny Sermons, director of learning resource center and distance learning at BCCC, and a member of the State Library of North Carolina Commission. “It’s kind of a good cross-section of different groups, agencies, libraries. It’s a good group; it’s a mix that reaches different citizens,” Sermons said.

The task force is taking a holistic approach to literacy, from pre-K screenings to the proposal of an adult high school at BCCC, where students who have aged out of public school can continue classroom learning.

It starts with the youngest, according to Lisa Woolard, director of BHPC.

“Research says that children need to hear 21,000 words every day by the time they start school to be successful. … That doesn’t mean that they have to hear 21,000 different words, but they need to hear that many words daily or they will be behind when they start school,” Woolard said.

Pre-K screening is actually designed to identify at-risk children to shepherd them into the program that provides the needed exposure to language. For county third-graders, focus is placed on getting reading skills up to grade level, according to Michele Oros, co-chair with Sermons of the task force, and grant writer for Beaufort County Schools. But schools’ statistics are showing that emphasis should stay on reading in higher grades, she said.

Of the 23.3 percent of BCS 11th-graders who hit the ACT benchmark for reading last year, 32.4 percent read at grade level when tested in eighth grade in 2013-14, according to North Carolina Department of Instruction statistics. For the 2015-16 school year, local third-graders reading at grade level was 55.9 percent; for those in eighth grade, the number dropped to 44.3 percent.

The deterioration of at-grade-level reading skills is propelling the task force to approach literacy on all levels.

“They meet the eighth grade (level), but did we give them more help to get them to high school level readers? … They got out of eighth grade; they went to high school but did not increase their reading ability,” Oros said. “There has become this dawning: you don’t inoculate a child from reading failure in third grade. They still need support.”

Support is everywhere, and the BC360 task force is making sure children and adults have access to the many resources in Beaufort County.

“There are lots of things going on and in place that are a grassroots effort to connect people in need with the resources,” Sermons said.

These start with the pre-K screenings; move to a bookmark program, in which every kindergarten through eighth-grade student in the county will receive a bookmark promoting all library locations within the county, as well as the free resources they offer; further continue existing programs such as the adult-oriented Literacy Volunteers, and start new programs such as BCCC’s adult high school and launching the NC Digital Library for children in February, by which children will have access to thousands of books and other media, according to Hannah Easley, director of the Beaufort-Hyde-Martin Regional Library.

In addition to the bookmark campaign, Easley’s current focus is on awareness: February is “Love Your Library” month, in which various libraries will be promoting the services they offer, from access to NC Cardinal, an electronic library featuring hundreds of thousands of books, to the most basic online tutorials for the beginning computer user.

Easley said her goal is to keep children engaged with reading, not matter what time of year it may be — summer reading programs have proven particularly successful.

“That’s something that libraries have been doing since the 1890s, and that’s to prevent summer ‘slide,’” Easley said. “That’s when we really go all out.”

Brown Library Director Sandra Silvey also wants to get the word out about the Washington library’s many free resources, and encourages people to ask what’s available and make suggestions for more resources.

“If there’s something they’re looking for and they don’t see it, they’re always welcome to call us and tell us what they need,” Silvey said. “The staff will connect them with the resources they need to get the help that they need.”

This is the first in a series of articles running in February about BC360’s literacy task force. Next week’s article will focus on resources and where they can be found.