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The Freedom of Literacy: Investing in the Futures of African-American Children Through Early Childhood Literacy and Education

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Frederick Douglass

The academic-achievement gap for African-American students, families and communities is a pervasive issue in the United States, ultimately producing economic and social inequities. These inequities date back to the longstanding issues of racism and discrimination throughout the U.S. as a result of anti-literacy laws targeting blacks, pre- and post-Civil War, as literacy has long been used as a means of social control and oppression. 

Early childhood education and literacy is a critical component in any child’s academic development and factors into their future career options and economic stability, as well as health and social opportunities. A long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) found that students not proficient in reading by the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers and are likely to experience consequences that stretch into adulthood. 

Early learning challenges are greater for children of color, those with disabilities and dual-language learners. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that for black, Hispanic and American Indian children, more than 80 percent in each group are not proficient readers. While this issue is nationwide amongst children of all ethnicities, research suggests that a number of factors, including income level, can have adverse effects on children of color at higher rates than white children.

This issue is detrimental for children in foster care, as well, as the trauma of entering care and subsequent uncertainties and changes can greatly and continually impact their stress levels, thus affecting their educational outcomes. In addition to negatively impacting a child’s attendance at school, traumatic experiences can impede a child’s ability to learn, even in their earliest years. And according to research, black foster children are likely at a higher risk due to the simultaneous trauma of being removed from their birth families and growing up amid institutionalized racism in America.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) posits that frightening or threatening situations that can cause stress are experienced more frequently by African-American and socially and economically disadvantaged children with less access to protective resources that can reduce their stress levels. With this, EPI explains that placement in foster care or kinship care can be one factor that may produce toxic stress in children, which can ultimately cause a hormone disruption, resulting in stunted brain growth and diminished brain activity “in the prefrontal cortex, a region that controls executive function, learning, memory, attention, anxiety and emotional regulation.”   

Historical Context

Black literacy during the Civil War was a complex issue, as states were divided by the laws that made it possible or impossible for them to read. Before the 1830s, there were few restrictions on teaching slaves to read and write. However, after the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, all slave states except Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee passed laws against teaching slaves to read and write out of fear they would further rebel and/or declare their independence, as literacy allowed them to learn their rights and demonstrate their intelligence.  

During the abolitionist movement in the 1860s, the absence of formal education for southern slaves forced African-Americans to find alternative ways to achieve literacy: learning from fellow slaves, family members or defiant abolitionists, or by standing outside schoolhouses. In the antebellum North, while education was not forbidden for blacks, black schools struggled to survive due to the lack of white financial support, and their limited curricula was often based on what white teachers believed blacks should learn. 

Despite the adversity both enslaved and free blacks endured during these historical eras, their determination to learn, read and assert their intellect created opportunities in their communities. 

What We Can Do

Current societal efforts to overcome the harmful effects of discrimination against African-Americans have not been sufficient, especially in education. As such, support systems are critical to ensure black children are given the same opportunities to thrive academically as their white counterparts. For children in foster care or kinship care, EPI suggests that “support programs such as home visits and/or therapy services by community health workers, nurses, and other health specialists can offset the damaging effects of exposure to frightening or threatening conditions by building the capacity of caregivers to provide children with safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that help to develop children’s adaptive and positive coping skills.”

All children should be afforded opportunities to learn and grow together to build future stability. AECF suggests that in order to do this, high-quality early childhood programs that include support for families have a powerful and lasting impact on children as they progress through school and into adulthood. Their experiences in the social world of family and community play a critical role in how well they learn in school.  

In Pittsburgh, Homewood Children’s Village (HCV) aims to fill the gap by taking a holistic approach to early childhood learning—with early childhood considered to be the period between birth to 8 years old—and supports for children and families in the Homewood neighborhood. President and CEO Walter Lewis explains, “Homewood Children’s Village was founded to look at all of the things that are necessary for a young person to grow up healthy, happy and fulfilled, and how we invest in those systems in making sure that every child has the opportunity to succeed.”

Walter Lewis

Lewis further explains the importance of early education for children of color as a pathway to combat the barriers they will face throughout their lives amid institutionalized racism. “Literacy is critical because it’s one of those skills where you learn to read and then you read to learn,” he says. “If you struggle with reading, in fluency and comprehension, and some of those things, it’s very difficult to learn later in life. If our kids struggle with reading and literacy early on, it’s just setting them back at later stages [in life].”

HCV’s 2 Generation (2Gen) approach “works towards building strong parent and community stability” in an effort to support children, their families and the community to help children reach their fullest potentials. This 2Gen approach provides a system of support to better assist parents, caregivers and other adults who play critical roles in each child’s development in early education.  

“At 2 and 3 years old, a child is not old enough to decide for themselves what they’re going to eat or drink, when they’re going to go to sleep, what they read, what they play,” Lewis explains. “They’re not necessarily making all of those decisions. So, whether consciously or not, it’s the adults in their lives that are ultimately driving a lot of those things. Our work in the early childhood space, as a community, has to rest a lot with parents to be able to be most effective and impactful in terms of working with those children.”

In addition to engaging parents and caregivers, as well as partnering with other community organizations that offer early childhood programming, HCV also works in Homewood elementary schools—Lincoln and Faison—with the assistance of social-work interns and Americorps members. “A lot of that work focuses on literacy, making sure kids are gaining those early literacy skills and those building blocks for literacy so they can excel moving forward,” Lewis says. 

Lewis’ next point is one A Second Chance, Inc., practices in its service delivery to the kinship triad: Meet each child/family where they are. No two are alike. As such, Lewis emphasizes that practitioners must recognize each child’s unique situation to better understand the educational approach he or she may require. 

“Ultimately, you have to understand every child’s context,” he says. “Whether you’re in foster care, kinship care, whether you’re in a two-parent household or single parent, raised by grandma, raised by your big brother … everybody has a unique family context. In order to serve kids effectively, you have to understand that. Based on that context, you have to identify: What does this child need? We really try our best not to take a cookie-cutter approach to working with our kids. We really try to … identify what it is that they want out of life. Who do they see themselves being in five, 10, 20 years? And then [we determine] in what ways we can help them. And that should look different for each and every child.”

One thing all black children need is to see themselves represented in the books they’re reading, especially in early education, as it builds their self-esteem and helps them identify with influential characters. As children’s books historically lack culturally diverse characters, it is important that parents and caregivers are intentional in selecting literature that provides their children representation.

“When I was a kid, I never saw a black scientist,” Lewis recalls. “It wasn’t something I thought about for myself. But then I remember when my mother started working at IT, all of a sudden that was possible because I knew somebody. And that somebody was close to me, and I felt like I could do it. And that’s what happens when you read books by black authors with black characters and in black contexts. Representation matters.” 

As early childhood education and literacy primarily takes place in educational institutions, Lewis maintains that this is ultimately a job for parents and caregivers, as they are their child’s first teacher

“With literacy, the most important thing for parents/caregivers to do is to be present,” Lewis offers. “Literacy is a lot about practice and repetition, and learning is everything. I think sometimes as parents we think, ‘I’m not a teacher, I don’t know anything about this stuff,’ but what you learn is, especially with little ones, you can use simple things to teach your children.” 

He continues, “For example, on the walk to the bus stop or to school in the morning, or to church or wherever it is you’re going, you can point out things, like, ‘Hey, what color is that sign over there? Do you know what that says? It says stop. S-T-O-P, stop.’ As parents, if we did more of those types of things with our kids every day, our kids would be so advanced when they walk into these classrooms and school buildings because we’ve done the deep work of starting the foundation for the education. And those things are accessible to all of us.”

While Lewis explains that parents and caregivers may not necessarily be “content experts” in certain fields, there is power in their ability to influence children with what they do know, as children look to them for direction. 

“I think that’s where we have to dispel the myth that you have to go to school for four years to begin to educate your child. You don’t,” he insists. “Embrace the power that you have. The things that you do know—start there. It starts with those little conversations. Whether you’re the aunt, big brother, Godmother, father, mother … really embrace that power and reclaim it. I think it’s important for us to be as engaged as possible, but I would encourage parents and caregivers not to bow out because of fear. That’s what I often see. It’s not that parents don’t care; they just feel that teachers and other professionals are the experts.”

“Don’t ever underestimate the power you have as a parent,” Lewis adds. “Speaking as a black person, an African-American person in particular, descendant of African slaves … generations ago, we had some ancestors that could not read. The ones that could read, they didn’t have school education. It was not uncommon for many folks to not attend or finish school, and they were able to instill a lot in their children and grandchildren in terms of education, learning and a lot of core concepts.”

While statistics have suggested that African-American children in foster care may experience higher levels of stress and other factors that lead to poor educational outcomes, Lewis suggests that child welfare professionals, along with those working in community organizations, can play a significant role in ensuring these children maintain a successful learning track in the midst of the adversity they face. 

A child reads a culturally diverse book as part of ASCI Reads, a summer reading program.

“When we’re thinking about a child’s welfare, we have to take a holistic approach,” he says. “Their environment and safety are critical, so how can we keep them learning in the process?” 

“We have to be very conscious of the light in our children’s eyes, in their hearts and souls, and make sure we do everything in our power to keep that light lit,” he continues. “Because as adults, that’s what part of our job is. And if you’re working in the [child welfare] system, when you step in, you’re, in a way, assuming part of that parental role at that point. So, that becomes your job, too.”

As an agency dedicated to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to succeed and thrive in a safe and nurturing family environment, ASCI applauds the work of neighboring community organization HCV for all it does to create better outcomes for our children. Despite the historical and current barriers to learning black children face, we remain dedicated as a community to work together to close the gap and ensure our children are free to learn, grow and achieve for generations to come. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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