North Memphis

Experts fear COVID-19 could widen Memphis' literacy divides

Christina Ueal’s dining room table is now a makeshift classroom. Like parents across the Mid-South, she's navigating a new normal. 

Tennessee schools are likely to keep buildings closed until the 2020-21 school year per Governor Bill Lee's April 15 recommendation. 

“With five kids, it’s just hard,” said Ueal. “You can explain it to yourself, but it's hard to put it into words where [your kids] can understand it.”

Research shows school closures are necessary to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, but disruptions put a huge burden on families to take responsibility for learning. 

Most students will lose two months of in-class learning followed by the dreaded 'summer slump.' As daily reading and literacy lessons decline, kids can lose some of what they learned the previous school year without ongoing instruction.

Ueal is a single mom and admits meeting the learning needs of each child isn’t an easy task. Her new students range from kindergarten to eighth grade and attend both Shelby County Schools and charter schools in North Memphis and Frayser. Three are also atypical learners and receive special education services, including physical therapy. 

“Teachers are trained professionals,” said Tamera Malone, an associate professor at the Relay Memphis Graduate School of Education. “We go through hours and hours of professional development. So to expect a parent to then deliver a lesson like we would is unfair and unrealistic.”

For some families, it's more realistic. Households with two parents, two incomes, and two college degrees will fare the best.

But what about caregivers with low literacy and minimal formal education? How do they teach when they struggle with literacy, comprehension, or subject knowledge?

Knox Shelton is director of Literacy Mid-South. He said one in seven adults in Shelby County are at or below a sixth-grade reading level. The 2019 American Communities Survey showed black Memphians are twice as likely as white Memphis to have no high school diploma.

Shelton said many of their adult learners struggle with basic literacy tasks like reading a prescription or a menu at a restaurant. Reading a seventh-grade, word-based math problem would be daunting.

“In our current situation, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for some of our parents to be able to sit down and engage with these learning packets,” said Shelton.

Low-income and elementary-age students are most at-risk for academic backsliding without class instruction and professional educators, as are kids who already struggle with literacy or have parents who struggle.

Less than 25% of SCS third graders are proficient readers according to 2019 TNReady statewide standardized test. 

Shelton's concerned that months without classrooms will widen Memphis' literacy divides.

“We’re already looking at pretty large disparities within our communities before this even happened,” said Shelton. “This [pandemic] is going to further pronounce those disparities.”

"I don’t have my diploma ... it’s kind of hard for me to help"
Like her kids, Ueal is learning from home. 

“I don’t have my diploma. I’m still going to school for my GED now,” she said. “So it’s kind of hard for me to [help] do their work if I don’t know how to do it myself.”

Ueal was already working towards earning her high school equivalency degree with local nonprofit HopeWorks' Adult Education Program before the pandemic hit Memphis. She's also been working with a tutor at Literacy Mid-South to improve her reading skills.

She’s thankful she has technology. She spends her little free time on YouTube familiarizing herself with lessons on equivalent fractions, teaching the alphabet, and dozens of other subjects. She's also grateful to have a circle of family and friends, including her best friend and grandmother, to lean on.

“If I didn’t have technology, then I would be lost for real,” said Ueal. “I’ll sometimes have to call somebody to get more information so I can break it down for my [kids]."

Stacy Early runs the Adult Education Program at Literacy Mid-South. She said that like Ueal, many of her students are parents and grandparents now faced with supporting students' studies until fall. Some are also facing more immediate needs like food or job security.

“One of our learners is a grandparent. She has her grandkids all day, but she’s at a very beginning reading level," shared Early, who asked the client if she helps the kids with their work.

"She said ‘No, I can’t. Their mom has to help them when she gets home from work.' So the kids are there all day but can’t do any of their work."
Tamera Malone, Assistant Professor of Practice for Relay Graduate School of Education. Malone follows issues on race, equity and education on her social media platform, @urbanedequity. (New Memphis)
Short-Term Pandemic, Long-Term Effects
Most low-literacy interventions for at-risk students focus on pre-K through third grade. A loss of literacy support for these students could mean a lifetime of struggle. 

Third grade is an especially critical turning point for future learning success. Kids who can't read at grade level by fourth grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school or graduate late.
Knox Shelton, Executive Director of Literacy Mid-South (Literacy Mid-South)
SCS's new promotion policy even stipulates third graders must be reading at grade level to advance to fourth grade. Implementation is scheduled for the 2021-22 school year.

SCS has recently increased focus on third-grade read proficiency, including adding 56 second-grade teaching assistants in low-proficiency schools.

Now with COVID-19 closures, Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray has pushed the district to offer resources in formats that can bridge the digital divide and take some of the responsibility off of parents. This includes printed learning packets and daily programming on local PBS station WKNO 10.1 and WMC's channel 5.2. Both bring teachers and lesson into low-tech homes.

These solutions may address the digital divide but not necessarily literacy divides among parents and students.

Malone said school districts and operators need to start building recovery plans for Memphis' most underserved students now or the divide will widen.

“We have to look at these inequities that are being brought to light, and we have to figure out how to eradicate them," she said.

"We need to still provide parents with resources, meals, mental health support, and technology support. But we really need to start thinking about what this looks like post-COVID-19.”
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Read more articles by Ashley Davis and Cole Bradley.