Reading is essential to almost every aspect of learning. When students struggle with reading, it can put them behind both academically and socially, and decrease their odds of earning a high school diploma. As part of our StateImpact team’s special focus on dropouts, Michelle Kanu has this story about a woman who’s lack of reading skills led her to drop out of school at an early age.
As early as she can remember, 30-year-old Linda Jones says reading has always been a struggle.
“My process of learning how to read in elementary school was very difficult,” she says. “First you have to be able to pay attention to get it. I didn’t really pay attention.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Jones received little encouragement outside of school. Her mother was on drugs, she says, and she bounced between staying with relatives or in foster care.
And at school she shied away from asking for help.
“I was to a point that I feel like asking the teacher too many times would make me get uncomfortable because I think the class would laugh at me, so I turned a bully,” she says. “Fifth grade I remember feeling that, you know, I rather go and do something else than get my education.”
Jones stayed enrolled in school until seventh grade, when her involvement in a gang incident got her expelled and sent to an alternative school for kids with behavior problems. But once there, Jones was mixed with kids who had been in juvenile hall and says she feared for her safety, so she dropped out.
“Yeah, I left, and couldn’t nobody tell me to go back, and nobody tried to make me go back. And nobody forced me to go back. And if I did go back, who was going to make me stay? That was the attitude I had.”
Poor reading skills are often at the root of academic failure that leads many students like Jones to act out and disengage from school.
Patrick O’Connor says he sees that kind of pattern a lot. He’s a professor at Kent State University and a researcher with the National Dropout Prevention Center. He says when students struggle with reading early on, it puts them behind in almost every subject.
“Oftentimes what happens in the fourth or fifth grade when that student starts to struggle academically and on proficiency tests, many times they’ll start acting out, which calls attention from the teacher and the administration," O'Connor says. "And people start to notice this child’s behind, their grades will start to suffer.”
It’s a downward spiral from there, he says. Next comes middle school, where the problem only gets worse.
“Oftentimes by the ninth grade, they’re really struggling and they’re kind of on a drop out path by then,” he says.
Nationally, more than 30 million adults lack basic reading and writing skills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And more than half of them did not graduate from high school.
That’s one reason Ohio is pushing its Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which Governor John Kasich touted during his state of the state speech last year.
The policy requires that students meet or exceed a minimum score on the state’s third grade reading test before they can move on to fourth grade. Kasich says the goal is to help identify kids who are struggling before they get too far in the system, and to give them targeted reading help.
Linda Jones says she wishes she had that kind of intervention when she was younger.
Now a mother of three, Jones is enrolled in a GED prep program at Project Learn, a Cleveland based non-profit that helps adults learn how to read. Ohio has invested $6.8 million in similar Adult Basic and Literacy Education programs around the state.
Jones says for the first time in her life she’s getting one on one attention.
“It’s been a rocky river,” Jones says, “but look where I’m at. I can now look at my child and say, ‘hey wait this problem is wrong’ rather than to say I don’t know it.”
Jones says she’s now learning critical thinking skills, and improving her writing ability. And she has a job working at a beauty supply store. But as she becomes a better reader, Jones says she has bigger goals.
“I just feel like this changed my life," she says. "I want to be in the medical field and I feel like I can be able to do it.”