Here’s how we can deploy literacy as an anti-violence strategy | Opinion
By Jennifer Trost
As parents in St. Paul, Minn., have become all too aware lately, we continue to see levels of violence in our schools that indicate kids are not okay.
As a community we need to do what is necessary to create spaces where students feel physically safe, while also asking the question, “Why is this happening?”
I hope we look less at quick technical fixes and take a deeper dive into what schools have power to change, and initiatives our legislators can fund that will produce long-term change in students’ success, self-image and opportunities for the future.
What do I mean? The research shows the strong connection between poor literacy, juvenile incarceration and violence.
If we want safer communities, we should focus on increasing literacy skills. We need to see literacy as a form of violence prevention.
My personal experience is as a parent of a struggling reader and a former community college educator who witnessed first-hand students inability to read texts. I want to compel our legislators and community to think about how we support literacy in our schools.
I recognized something was amiss early on with my child, even though no teacher was giving me significant clues. After trying to navigate through teachers, the special education department, and use of what are known as 504 accommodation plans, I eventually sought out outside evaluation and services.
I could no longer take my child’s anger, fear and discouragement around school and the constant complaint of “feeling stupid” and trying to hide this issue. I knew we had a problem, but I was still shocked to learn my fourth-grade student was “reading” at a first-grade level.
With this information, I connected with the school, special education instructors, and her teacher. I was informed no one had the training to support my student. While my child finally made it on the list as “at risk,” the overwhelming sense was that the answer was simply more exposure with the same methods.
But I knew this was not the answer. Science-based reading interventions, like the Orton-Gillingham method, were required, but finding no one in the building with training in these methods meant I had to look elsewhere.
I was committed to keeping my child in public schools, so I did what many economically advantaged parents do, I paid for tutoring myself. Two 45-minute virtual sessions each week costs our family between $250-300 per month, a significant financial commitment for a service our public schools should provide.
The only good part of this story is that after a year of consistent tutoring with proven methods (60 sessions in total), our child can read at grade level! Furthermore, we no longer experience crying, complaining, or stressing about school. This type of experience needs to happen for all of our children.
I do not share this information to shame or blame our teachers, but rather show that we can do better. Our tutor, a former Saint Paul Public Schools educator, shared these words: “It’s very eye-opening for me! I taught second grade for many years and loved the balanced literacy method,” the tutor said, referring to the reading pedagogy in use around the country for decades. “It’s definitely been a wake-up call for me and very humbling. I feel like I’ve done a disservice to struggling students over the years without realizing it. It took my son’s dyslexia diagnosis to set me on a different path. At least now I can focus on science-based methods and know that it’s making a difference. When you know better, you can do better!”
My family’s story may sound familiar if you’ve listened to the American Public Media podcast, “Sold a Story,” which opened my eyes to how our school systems across the nation — but also here in our Twin Cities metro area — have failed to teach many of our students to read. The decades-long favored reading approach did not actually teach how to read or provide struggling readers with appropriate tools to succeed.
Thus, we have thousands of Minnesota’s public school students and graduates — particularly in economically-struggling communities — who cannot read well and whose pathway to economic freedom and success may be limited.
We cannot blame the children, parents, or families when educators, school administrators, and advocacy groups know there is a better option. Our schools and teacher education programs created this issue, and now it is time to acknowledge and reverse the damage.
As we have a huge state budget surplus, reading interventions are essential, with a priority for our communities where generational and systemic barriers limit opportunities for youth to thrive. I hope lawmakers will consider funding proven reading interventions to allow students to decode, identify and read the letters in words.
This type of reading transformation will have lifelong impacts, making our schools and communities safer for decades to come.
Jennifer Trost PH.D is the mother of two Saint Paul Public Schools students, and a college educator focused on leadership, sociology, educational equity and access. She’s also a board member and mentor with Mile in My Shoes. She wrote this piece for the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.