Literacy is an important skill for poor children to learn
from the Autumn 2008 issue

Growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, I didn’t know about the trials many disadvantaged students (particularly students of color) faced at school. According to Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, a child in a welfare household hears just 616 words per hour, less than one-third of the words heard in a household headed by professionals. Just imagine the disparity this creates in America. This is truly criminal in a First World nation such as ours.

After I earned my bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College, I was chosen to become a member of Teach for America’s 2003 corps. Teach for America was founded in 1989 to create public school advocates by having leaders from select college campuses experience teaching in America’s lowest-performing schools. According to David Gergen of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the people involved with Teach for America emerge “from their two years of service as the vanguard of a new generation of social entrepreneurs committed to education equity and social justice.”

Through Teach for America I was hired as a third grade teacher at a public elementary school in the Bronx, in which 96 percent of students received free- or reduced-price lunches. Each day at P.S. 194 was difficult, but there were moments of joy during those two years. I remember one girl, Lilly, who had a bright smile and curly black hair. Lilly is Puerto Rican and lives in the South Bronx. Her father is imprisoned for a minor drug offense, and her mother, an office cleaning woman, is about 15 years older than her daughter. At first, Lilly struggled in my classes, particularly math. Lilly said she just “wasn’t really very good at math.” That made my heart break. How could she know already? Soon I came to understand that math was not Lilly’s problem at all; Lilly didn’t know how to read! She couldn’t do her math problems because she couldn’t understand the textbook that explained how to do them.

Eventually, with regular after-school meetings, Lilly became a better reader and a better all-around student. Today, Lilly dreams of becoming a doctor. And it’s all because of literacy.

After two years in Teach for America, I decided I wanted to scale up the success I had with students like Lilly by working to expand successful education programs and translate them into national policy. This passion I developed for educational improvements led me to pursue a graduate degree in public policy at Georgetown University. Afterward, I was hired by a non-profit organization working to improve the education of America’s underperforming students by changing federal laws.

Literacy is truly the key to a better future for many, many underserved public school students. Thank you, Teach for America, for helping me come to this important realization.

Casey Poole works at a non-profit in Washington, D.C.

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