A few months ago, I was in South Texas for my sister’s wedding. In addition to being a good opportunity for a much-needed dose of Mexican food (let’s face it, D.C. is nearly devoid of decent Mexican), it was a chance to spend time with my family. After an unhealthy number of tortas and sopapillas, I spent quality time with my nephews Owen and Rocky. Anyone who knows me can tell you I’m a very, very proud uncle.
It is amazing to see that at such young ages, both my nephews have such distinct personalities. At almost one, Rocky is basically a Latino Mick Jagger—he bounces to any beat, from rock to Tejano (and I have video to prove it). Because Owen is a year older and learning to talk, his curiosity is front-and-center in every interaction. He loves Elmo—correction—he is utterly obsessed with Elmo. When Owen is elected the first Latino president (which he will be), I’m confident he will thank Elmo in his inaugural address.
Walking into his room, it appears that Owen is an Elmo hoarder—backpacks, toys, DVDs and more; you name it, he has it and it’s covered in red fur. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a lack of Elmo books. Sure he has a few, but in comparison to the DVDs, the books are scarce.
Truth is, Owen is more interested in watching Elmo on TV than reading a book about him. This might not seem like a big deal—after all kids love TV! Right? But because of a combination of factors—from income to race—this might be the first step down an unfortunate path for my nephew.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than 80 percent of Latino fourth graders read below proficiency—a gap that follows students into high school, with less than 20 percent of entering Latino freshmen reading at grade level. Furthermore, one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade will not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that of proficient readers.
The combination of a rapidly growing Latino community and an expanding literacy gap doesn’t bode well for our future educational or economic prospects. So how should we tackle this problem so fundamental to the success of our community? It’s not easy, but to start, we must modernize our approach. Let’s take a cue from Owen and make reading just as interesting as Elmo DVDs.
LNESC, the education arm of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and one of the largest Latino education organizations, is making reading more interactive. In partnership with Procter & Gamble and Target, LNESC launched Young Readers, which enrolls high-need Latino kindergarteners through third graders nationwide into an innovative program that combines research-based curriculum with group reading sessions led by certified teachers and guest community readers.
While the program has been tremendously successful, we are modernizing the curriculum to improve outcomes and stay ahead of the tech curve. Through a grant from the Verizon Foundation, LNESC is incorporating technology in the classroom like e-books into the Young Readers program.
Students enrolled in a summer pilot program in Atlanta will be introduced to classic stories with an innovative twist—Goldilocks and her bear pals will be in HD on an iPad. Lessons will bring traditional pages to life by including interactive applications that help students sound out words and form sentences while also allowing teachers to track progress with greater accuracy.
We know that technology is only part of the equation. Research shows that teacher quality is still the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement.
At LNESC, we’re developing a teacher-training modelto empower teachers by integrating iPads and online content into traditional lessons. We know that a piece of technology is only worth so much, the true value lies in having a skilled and excited teacher unlock the possibilities in a Smart Board for their class.
We know for a fact that technology is playing a bigger and bigger role in our daily lives; it’s changed the way we communicate (think iPhone) and the way we work (think teleconferencing and cloud computing). Isn’t it time we use technology for more than just watching Elmo (or playing Angry Birds)? Emerging tech tools should be adapted to help teachers close disparity gaps in education and what better place to start than literacy?
Jason Resendez is director of development & corporate relations for LNESC, a national organization that serves over 11,000 disadvantaged youth a year through 14 education and technology centers across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.