Expert Encourages Literacy Programs for the Very Young

Originally appeared in The Record September 2, 2016

By Nicholas Filipas The Record Staff Writer

STOCKTON — Give young children and their families the tools and resources to encourage early literacy and they will respond.

That was the message spread by Susan B. Neuman, an author and New York University professor, during a public dialogue at the Vereschagin Alumni House at University of the Pacific on Thursday morning.

Community leaders and educators discussed the importance of early literacy in children, especially those in San Joaquin County. The discussion was hosted by the Beyond Our Gates initiative, and those in attendance included county Superintendent James Mousalimas, Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones and Councilman Dan Wright.

Neuman, a 1978 Pacific graduate, has spent many years as an educator, researcher and education policymaker in early childhood and literacy development.

She also served as assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education during the George W. Bush administration. Neuman is also credited for starting No Child Left Behind.

The half-hour presentation, titled “Changing the Odds for Children At-Risk,” highlighted research and strategies that provided at-risk youth the opportunity to read.

“One of the things we know about beating the odds is the odds are always going to get you; they are never in your favor,” Neuman said. “So the notion and focus to highlight is how to change the odds for children at risk to ensure that more of our children are successful in learning to read, but also successful as citizens in our country.”

In her research, she found that families that lived in poverty in neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Detroit responded very well to easier access to books in the forms of vending machines.

Placed in supermarkets, churches and other areas of high activity, Neuman discovered that families would actively seek out the means to read to their children, with suitable books ranging from newborns to teens.

Creating resources for parents such as book clubs and classrooms that promoted challenging curriculum can reduce educational inequality, she said.

“Just because they are in poverty doesn’t mean that they are not able to learn,” said Neuman.

Pacific’s Beyond Our Gates initiative was created five years ago as a way to improve education in the county.

Last year, 32 percent of third-grade students in San Joaquin County had reached grade-level proficiency, a slight improvement from 27 percent the previous year, Pacific President Pamela Eibeck said.

This milestone is key: Children who read at grade level by third grade are more likely to stay in school, achieve academic success and stay out of jail. Those who don’t are more likely to drop out and to be incarcerated.

According to University of the Pacific’s annual San Joaquin Literacy Report Card, attendance rates also improved, as did preschool enrollment. Officials were delighted, Eibeck said, to have a considerable sense of momentum.

“We are moving the dial,” she said.

The Literacy Report Card also takes truancy rates and the percentage of new mothers without a high school diploma as key factors that influence a child’s educational success and finds that non-proficient readers fall behind their peers in school.

By the time children are 3, 80 percent of their brains have been developed. In many homes, students by age 3 may have heard fewer than 3 million words, and that disconnect can set them up to be behind from the first day of kindergarten. Many of these students will drop out of high school, if not before, and most will be at risk of using drugs or joining gangs.

The initiative has been aggressive in continuing to provide opportunities and services for low-income families, such as summer enrichment programs for children at community centers of low-income housing communities in Stockton such as Sierra Vista and Conway Homes.

Beyond Our Gates also launched an Early Literacy Mini-Grant Project to community-based organizations and public and private agencies in the county. With funding from the Irvine Foundation, the initiative will award $5,000 and $10,000 grants to local organizations that want to pilot or enhance literacy programs.

“The future of our region depends on the education of our youth,” Eibeck said.

— Contact reporter Nicholas Filipas at (209) 546-8257 or Follow him on or on Twitter @nicholasfilipas.

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