Reading Scores in the Poorest U.S. District

You know, you don’t see with your eyes

you see with your brain

and the more words your brain has

the more things you can see
― KRS-One

The Bronx is often talked about as the ‘forgotten borough’. But if you ever took the time to check it out you’d come to realize that it’s as lively as it is iconic (and, yes, occasionally violent).

Nearly a million and a half people call it home. It’s the cradle of Merengue, Break dancing, Salsa, Graffiti, and Hip-Hop. Once the landing pad of Jewish, German, Irish, and Italian immigrants, today it’s the intersection of black America, Mexico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Central America, Puerto Rico, and West Africa. It’s completely unique in its many layered cultures, flavors, colors, and tongues.

The Bronx (affectionately referred to as The BX or El Bronx ) is torn up by the complexity of its reputation. Densely populated, often grim and featureless, it also boasts 7,000 acres of strikingly beautiful open space. The Bronx is big, audacious, and very complicated.IMG_1661

Though the spirit of the borough is indomitable, it faces serious challenges: urban blight, white flight, high addiction rates, and decaying housing. But probably its greatest hurdle is its illiteracy rate. In the South Bronx the elementary and middle school reading proficiency rate is 10%. That’s the lowest of any district in the city.

This statistic is indicative of greater problem in America, namely educational inequality. Bad test scores are not reducible to one source. They find their origin in a grotesque mosaic of interconnecting problems. The unfortunate reality is that there are no easy solutions.

But spending even a single day in the South Bronx you’d stumble across the core reason that its youth face impossible obstacles. The two ton elephant in the room is intergenerational poverty.

In Mott Haven and Hunt’s Point 59% of people below the age of seventeen live below 50% of the national median income. What this means is that three out of every five kids live in povertynothing less than a moral catastrophe. Compare this statistic to Finland’s 5% rate of child poverty (and it should be no surprise that Finland is universally considered to be at the top of global education).

The median income of families with children is $19,570 a year. On the Upper East Side—just fifty blocks away—the average income of a family with children is a $212,276. And because the cost of housing in South Bronx is 58 percent higher than the national average one out of every ten students is homeless.

Immense economic stress makes success in the classroom practically impossible. How could we possibly expect students to do homework without a home to do it in?

Consequently, in the South Bronx only one-third of high-school students graduates on time. How could New York City allow for such a disaster to fester and worsen for so long? And, more importantly, how do we begin to fix it?

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Reading is a widely misunderstood activity. The culture of testing treats reading as a generalized skill that is easily measured and assessed. The ability to translate written symbols into sounds is called decoding. It’s only this aspect of the skill that can be straightforwardly taught and mastered.

But in America reading instruction largely focuses on teaching and practicing comprehension strategies—helping students to find the main idea of a passage and make inferences or identify the author’s purpose. The general idea is to arm young readers with a suite of all-purpose tricks and tips for reading that can be applied to any text the child encounters.

To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command. It’s a densely layered array of different brain functions working simultaneously.

Think of reading like playing an instrument. Separate parts of the brain coordinate to control many fingers, remember melodies, kept tempo, and translate musical notes. Reading is actually many mental activities in one: making associations and inferences, decoding sounds, recalling vocabulary, connecting complementary threads, storing information, detecting mood, and comprehending authorial intent. It’s a complex process of synchronized capabilities that requires consistent exercise, very much like a muscle, or it will begin to depreciate.

If a single one of these skills is not up to par then comprehension as a whole will stumble and falter, like a musician playing with a broken finger. Making sense of even the most rudimentary text requires a whole host of background knowledge. Students need a familiarity with a comprehensive array of words and concepts prior to beginning reading anything at all.

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Places like the South Bronx are rich in culture but are impoverished in English language resources. Homes in The Bronx speak an astonishing array of languages. According to the Census Bureau, more than 16 African languages are spoken in the Bronx. Some linguists believe that this is a low estimate because in West Africa alone there are more than 800 spoken languages. Though many African immigrants more often speak French.

Roughly half the population speaks primarily Spanish at home.

Language barriers are often detrimental to the literacy ability of children in places like The Bronx.  In research done on developmental vocabulary it was found that 86-98% of the words recorded in a child vocabulary consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabulary. By 18 months old, the children from language-poor homes are processing language at six months behind those from language-rich homes. And it’s not only that these children are given less words to work with—mere vocabulary being poured into their brain—language deficiencies at a young age cause the construction of fundamentally different machine with vastly different capabilities. It effects their whole life.

Students in The Bronx are often restricted from enriching experiences that expand their capacities. They have little to no opportunity to travel and experience new places, things, and people. Parents suffering from poverty simply don’t have the resources to take children to experience-rich environments that contribute to vocabulary development like museums, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, concerts, shows, movies, or galleries. Consequently students in the Bronx often feel uncomfortable navigating certain literary metaphors, idioms, or geographical features that are found in readings about agrarian and suburban life or any other way of living that is foreign to them.

It’s these constant little snags in the coordination of reading skills that cripple impoverished students. They simply don’t have the intellectual resources—that arsenal of background knowledge afforded privileged students—to make sense of every text put in front of them. And to our educational system the poverty of their vocabulary is formally deemed as their own ‘failure’ and not so subtle says to them that we think they’re just plain stupid.

Children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. Servicing a million and a half people, The Bronx has a single bookstore. It’s a Barnes & Noble where a good hardcover book for young student can cost more than 10 or 20 dollars—hardly a reasonable burden for families in poverty.

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All these factors of economic hardship make it virtually impossible for The Bronx to cultivate a generation of readers. The inability to read leads directly to poor grades, which encourages frustrated students to drop out—opting out of the system entirely—which allows for significantly fewer job opportunities, which leads, in turn, to poverty.

Revolutionary movements have always seen developing literacy as one of its most important tasks. Yet in the US, where the assumption is that everyone can read and write, this is often overlooked. Reading is also valuable for its own sake and everyone should have access to its infinite pleasures.

Unless we immediately make serious and long-term efforts to alleviate the burden that poverty puts on students the vicious cycle of illiteracy will take another generation of kids in the inner city—wide-eyed, dark-skinned, and innocent.

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