Kathy Wyatt knows that being able to read can save a child's life. It's why she and other members of the new Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County are mobilizing awareness around the local literacy crisis with their upcoming Family Literacy Initiative Campaign.
"I come from a background that was so bad that I shouldn't have even survived it," says Wyatt, executive analyst and assistant to the Washtenaw County Sheriff. "But one of the things that opened doors for me was books. They showed me that there was a whole other world that was different from the one I lived in."
Wyatt began her efforts to create a new county literacy coalition a year ago, reviving a previous incarnation of the coalition that was funded in part by Washtenaw County. She's rallied a group of 15 local organizations that have been at the forefront of literacy issues in Washtenaw County. The Family Literacy Initiative Campaign will formally launch during a public event at Washtenaw Community College's (WCC) Morris Lawrence Building on March 10 from 1-5 p.m., coinciding with National Reading Month. The public awareness campaign will focus on the importance of literacy, how it affects children and their families, and the ripple effects on the community.
Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County member Kathy Wyatt.
"We've been talking and talking about literacy and now it's time to act," says Sharine Buddin, executive director of the Family Learning Institute
(FLI), a literacy coalition member organization. "This is not just about students' test scores. This is about how literacy affects people at different stages and how it affects those around them."
Buddin, a retired teacher and principal at Ypsilanti Community Schools, adds that Family Literacy Initiative Campaign kickoff attendees will learn directly from organizations and people in the community about how deeply literacy impacts families across ages and generations. It will also be an opportunity for attendees to learn how they can help address the local literacy crisis.
"There are more opportunities than just volunteering. Maybe you can donate books or drop off some snacks for afterschool programs," she says. "Teachers can't do it alone, parents can't do it alone, and the literacy coalition can't do it alone."
Starting at the family level
Carole McCabe, executive director of literacy coalition member organization Washtenaw Literacy
, says it's "vitally important" to view literacy through a family lens. Her organization provides literacy services to adults (ages 16 and up) and is the fiduciary for the Family Literacy Initiative Campaign.
"50% of kids who are born to parents with low literacy will also struggle with low literacy," she says. "That's why we're trying to put out an urgent call for attention."
Wyatt, who is of African-American descent, recalls a childhood of struggle that was punctuated with walks to the sanctuary of her local public library. She recalls making quick work of a whole shelf of books about women who had accomplished great things, such as Amelia Earhart.
"I have a real reverence toward reading," she says. "Books gave me the skills and the knowledge that allowed me to then get a scholarship and save my life."
Unfortunately, Wyatt adds, for too many children in Washtenaw County, such opportunities will only be someone else's story until more residents become aware that a literacy crisis exists. Key to understanding the county's current literacy landscape, she says, is recognizing that literacy has long been a problem on the east side of the county (with deep historical roots in poverty, racism, and school systems that were originally designed to feed factories rather than provide pathways to college). Wyatt explains that many people are unaware of the ongoing impacts of that history. Major factories closing, for instance, fueled poverty that is still evident today for many families.
Wyatt says the latest Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) scores are a reflection of a crisis. In the 2022-2023 school year, for example, Ypsilanti Community Schools students in third through seventh grades scored lower than a 20% average proficiency rate in M-STEP's English language arts (ELA) assessment. Statewide, M-STEP average ELA proficiency rates range from 37-43% depending on grade level. Furthermore, candid conversations with teachers and leaders in the literacy arena are telling a sad tale – one where many children's futures are as good as written off by the age of nine.
Caroline Nathans at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti.
"The M-STEP scores tell us that students are not on level," Wyatt says. "And we're hearing about classes where two-thirds of fourth-graders are reading at a kindergarten level."
To casual observers, fourth-graders not reading on par might only be cause for passing concern. However, for early reading specialist Caroline Nathans, it's cause for grave concern.
"Most learning at that grade is reading-based. We can lose kids altogether if they are struggling so deeply at that time," she says. "It can set off a chain of events in their lives, and impacts their futures profoundly in ways most of us wouldn't imagine."
Under the auspices of the Ann Arbor-based FLI, a longstanding nonprofit that focuses on closing the achievement gap via literacy, Nathans runs programs that provide free tutoring sessions to low-income students in second through fifth grades. She has felt more urgency around literacy since the COVID-19 pandemic ended and children returned to in-school learning.
"COVID-19 was a terrible blow for children who were already struggling with foundational skills," she says. "Today, we're seeing huge learning losses. Some kids are multiple grades behind. Something needs to be done."
Mary Cayton at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti.
In agreement is 69-year-old Mary Cayton, a lover of sloths and a former university professor who joined Nathan's stable of tutors a year ago. The grandmother of five travels weekly, from Canton to Ypsilanti, to tutor her young charges and read to groups of students. With her is "Slothy," a sizable stuffed sloth. Slothy has trouble reading, so the children read to him. Occasionally, Cayton dons a sloth mascot head, which she reports drives the kids wild.
"Kids come tearing down the hall for hugs and can't wait to read and connect," she says. Cayton, who has witnessed a child improve their literacy by multiple grades, adds, "It doesn't take a lot of investment to make a big contribution."
She's excited about the upcoming Family Literacy Initiative Campaign.
"There are so many parents and grandparents out there who understand the importance of their child learning to read," Cayton says. "But they need help due to their life circumstances."
She says that help can be transformative for a child who may be able to read to their parent for the first time.
"Then that parent tells that child that they are proud of them," Cayton says. "Think about what that could do for families and our communities."
Solving the literacy crisis
The time to write a better, brighter chapter about literacy in our community is now, says coalition member Ernesto Querijero. He's cofounder (with his wife Lisa) of Books For Kids
. The couple started the nonprofit in 2017, collecting and shipping used books to under-resourced schools in the Philippines. After the COVID-19 pandemic started, the couple pivoted to getting new, culturally appropriate books into the hands of needful children in Michigan and they haven't stopped doing so since.
One of the most impactful ways the couple does their work is through book fairs that are supported by donations, grant funding, and local partnerships. The events are modeled after the renowned Scholastic book fairs, but with an innovative twist: young shoppers don't need any money to leave with a brand new book.
"Can you imagine a kid's face, walking into a book fair not worrying about money?" Querijero says. "We are experiencing a crisis, but there are solutions."
Mary Cayton tutoring a student at Erickson Elementary.
Querijero, who serves on the Ann Arbor Board of Education, also teaches remedial English at WCC to students who aren't yet ready for college-level courses.
"We know that early intervention works and we need to support that," he says. "Elected officials need to have their minds on reading and literacy. It's important for a stronger workforce, and for a safer, happier community."
Wyatt, who shares similar sentiments, says that she's looking forward to working with coalition members, and more residents, as the coalition's efforts ramp up.
"The literacy crisis is fixable," she says. "So let's get started."
Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.