Race, wealth, and literacy in Memphis: Who's helping kids read at grade-level?

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on Memphis' biggest literacy divides and the local organizations working to close those gaps. Part II spotlights those organizations and how they're improving their tools and proving their case with real-world data.

Read Part I here: “Race, wealth, and literacy in Memphis: Why third grade matters”

"We are preparing ourselves for when this ends and children come back into schools and programs. There’s gonna be a lot more catchup that needs to be done."  —Lisa Wiltshire, Tennesseans for Quality Early Education

Memphis’ literacy divides run largely along racial and economic lines.

Memphis’ pervasive low-literacy isn’t as simple as white and black, rich and poor, literate and illiterate, but those generalization to have roots in truth.

If you are black and low-income, you are significantly more likely to struggle with reading proficiency as a child and adult. It’s the result of hundreds of years of institutional racism and economic suppression in black communities in the Mid-South and beyond.

Kids from families with fewer resources start from behind.

Shelby County Schools and organizations like ALLMemphis and Tennesseans for Quality Early Education are working to close literacy gaps for the most youth who are most at-risk for a lifetime of learning hurdles as a results of low literacy in early childhood.

They’re using local data, tailored learning models, and collaboration with educators to do it.

Reading Starts with Talking

Literacy starts long before formal schooling.

Children begin learning language from sounds heard in the womb. That early hardwiring is reinforced as parents and others interact with the newborn. 

Exposure to language through reading, conversation, and music are critical to brain development from zero to three years old.

Related: "Video: Beyond babble, back-and-forth conversations are critical for baby brains"

Two of the most important influences on early literacy and kindergarten readiness are frequent conversations in the first three years of life and a safe, well-resourced home environment. Kindergarten, in turn, influences first through third grades. By the end of third grade, low-literacy can be a predictor of graduation rates, wages as an adult, even likelihood of criminal.

Lisa Wiltshire is the senior policy fellow for nonprofit Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. She said that by the end of Pre-K, children from low-income households often trail their more well-resourced peers by 200-1000 words.

“... there’s a very sensitive stage of reading development between ages one and two,” said Krista Johnson, executive director and co-founder of local literacy nonprofit ALL Memphis.

“A lot of connections made in the brain that allow for future reading success—those periods of epics of development that are able to help a student—have already passed by the time a student gets to one of these Head Start or early reading programs,” she continued.

Local Support: Birth to Kindergarten

In Shelby County, only one third of the area’s four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs. According to census data there are 13,086 4-year-olds in Shelby County. Out of those, only around 4,400 of Memphis’ 4-year-olds attend pre-K programs.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough supports for every child in need of early reading support before kindergarten. Shelby County School serves an average of 5,000 learners annually with its Pre-K Head Start programs. Three and four-year-olds making up over 80 percent of learners.

Nonprofit Porter-Leath partners with SCS on Head Start and offers Early Head Start for infants and toddlers with learning disabilities and, to a lesser degree, low-income children. Porter Leath also facilitates LENA Start and LENA Grow. The programs train caregivers at home and in early childhood centers on ways to increase conversations with their infants and toddlers.

Local Support: K through Third Grade

For children older kids who are at-risk or behind the curve, there are some additional resources to improve their proficiency. Support is primarily based on what schools can offer.

SCS recently hired 56 second grade teaching assistants in under-resourced schools to help prepare students for that critical third grade year. SCS also added an extra 45 minutes of daily reading instruction in elementary schools. If all else fails, SCS plans to hold third graders back starting in the 2021-22 school year if they are not reading at grade level.

Fifteen schools have or are currently partnered with ALLMemphis on its custom phonics curriculum. These include SCS schools and schools in the state's Achievement School District. 

ALLMemphis uses an adapted Orton-Gillingham approach to reading instruction. It was developed for children with dyslexia but has been adapted for kids with low-literacy due trauma or broader learning disabilities and delays. It also works for typical learners. The program reinforces language skills through sound, sight, and feel.
(L to R) Aurora Collegiate Academy first grade scholars Uriel Martinez, Roman Gibson and Jace Banks. (Cat Evans)


As Memphis’ schools deal with the day-to-day battle to improve proficiencies and test scores, TQEE is taking a data-based approach to find successful solutions. They use quantitative data, existing research, and focus groups with educators, business leaders, state agencies, and advocacy groups. Their goal is to develop well-informed policies and practices to move the needle on literacy gaps.

“For TQEE, that's been a driver of our work—[the belief] that Pre-K through [grade] three reading is the most critical of all education reform,” said Wiltshire.

“If we don't effectively deal with that, then all the other education reforms that we invest in aren’t going to matter as much,” she continued. “It's hard to play catch up. You need to be literate to be functional and successful in all the rest of schooling,”

Meanwhile, ALLMemphis is on the ground with educators. Much like the early training the brain receives as babies feel their way through the world, their program uses repeated exposures to reading skills using multiple senses to reinforce learning. They train educators in the curriculum, which they can then implement in their classrooms.

“It’s estimated that someone who doesn’t struggle with reading needs five to eight exposures to a concept to be able to own it and use it, whereas with a student who’s struggling to read [needs]  about 25 exposures,” said Johnson.

ALLMemphis provides constant listening and feedback to educators so they can pinpoint exactly where students need help and adapt the system accordingly. An app is in development to get parents in the loop too.

“We mentor teachers, partner with schools, [and] teach teachers our curriculum and how to use the multisensory approaches,” said Johnson.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted disparities between students with ample resources and those without.

Districts are scrambling to set up remote learning, most of which is online. But many low-income households don’t have reliable internet access, a computer, tablet, or other tools.There’s concern that months of less structured remote learning will only widen literacy gaps.

But 96% of U.S. households have a television. ALLMemphis is now helping SCS produce online lessons and daily television programming to reach students with less tech access.

“We are—this collective we, everyone I know in education—we are preparing ourselves for when this ends and children come back into schools and programs. There’s gonna be a lot more catchup that needs to be done,” said Wiltshire.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute. It is part of an ongoing series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education. UCI focuses on funding, advocacy, and community support for kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy to improve overall education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.

Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.
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