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Responding to Inequalities: Wisconsin's African American students face significant literacy hurdles

Posted at 7:39 PM, Jun 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-14 16:28:02-04

MILWAUKEE — African American students in Wisconsin face significant challenges in reading comprehension compared to their white counterparts.

Statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) show 84.6 percent of white students have a basic or better understanding of English Language Arts (ELA). Only 42.6 percent of black third grade students scored basic or better on the ELA test.

"It includes a lot of different things," Wanda Montgomery, President of the Milwaukee branch of the Black Child Development Institute (BCDI) said. "Certainly, the disparity is access and the resources."

We interviewed Montgomery outside of the Brown Deer public library. Yes, a free resource. However, that isn't enough for some families.

"There may be families that can't get to the library during the hours they're open," Montgomery said. "At home, families may not have a computer that the kids can have access to. We know, with schools closing down early [due to COVID-19], the students may have gotten a tablet but they don't have internet at home. Here, again, is a gap."

Through BCDI, Montgomery says they support all children's education but primarily focus on research and programming to help African American students; especially those under eight years old.

"Our key is to get our kids to reading and not just when they're in school but to develop a love of reading," Montgomery said. "The best way to do that is start them early. You need to start them early."

"I really love reading," Zephaniah Ponder, a sixth grader said. "You can experience what the character is experiencing and it's a nice getaway from reality."

Zephaniah and his brother Zion spend at least an hour a day reading. Zephaniah's goal is to read 50 books this summer. Zion, a third grader, is hoping to hit 30.

Their mother thinks that's a paltry estimate. She thinks they could eclipse 100.

"Reading is what spurs the imagination, creativity and innovation," Deanna Singh said. "When my kids say what they're excited about and they get to use their imagination, why wouldn't I want them to have access to that."

Reading is a huge part of Deanna's life; she's written three children's books. As a family, they have developed a love of reading by finding books with characters who look like them.

"One of the things important to us, we made sure the books on our bookshelves have children of color. We made sure when they opened ab book to read about all of the different things, they could find people who looked like them. Finding books with children of color is a hard thing to do. There are not many out there."

It's been one of the motivators for Zephaniah and Zion. So much so, the two kids are already done writing their first draft of a book on immigration from a child's perspective. It will be called Small Hands, Big Changes.

"I like to see someone that looks like me," Zephaniah said. "It's important to see themselves in books they read. It's important to know people like you can be seen."

"You can go on a little adventure with them too," Zion said. "You can feel what they're feeling."

What these kids are doing is much more advanced than just literacy. However, at its core, having an unshakeable foundation for reading will help them in the long run.

Wisconsin DPI says by 11th grade, 43.5 percent of white students were proficient in the ELA section of the ACT.

Just eight percent of black 11th grade students scored proficient in the same category.

"Reading is the portal to be able to do anything you want to do," Singh said. "It's an amazing portal. It's not the only portal, but an amazing portal."

"It will help you with the rest of your life and with other subjects in school," Zephaniah said. "Every single one shares on thing in common. It all has some reading in it."

Montgomery agrees with the sixth grader on the long term positive impacts of reading.

"To be able to put words together and not only read but to speak, it makes a significant difference in access to jobs, to education, to your community," Montgomery said. "If you can articulate well, you're probably going to be more accepted than not. When we look at those disparities, the have and have nots, there are people who don't want to associate with you if you don't know how to read. It's unfortunate, but the truth. That's the reality."

While a strong reading foundation as a kid can help when they grow up to adults, Montgomery says it's never too early to start reading to your kids.

"Before they're born," Montgomery said. "While they're in the womb. You can get children's books and start to read just like you would when your child is born and you read it during the afternoon or evening. Just start reading."

Montgomery says, even when her own kids were growing up, she struggled to get them reading. However, she found it's important to find a topic they like and provide an outlet.

"I don't care if you read every sports magazine there is, as long as you're reading," Montgomery said. "We used to drive down the streets and we read the signs. How do you engage kids in reading when it's not something like a task but really, getting them to enjoy."

Montgomery suggests devoting at least 30 minutes a day to reading with your children.

"You just build on that," Montgomery said. "Parents are busy and that can be challenging but if you start it and kids know, have them pick the book they want to read, all of that is important."

There are a number of resources online to help your child with reading. Please consider visiting any of the following websites for more information.

Next Door Foundation - Reading Program -
Milwaukee Public Library - Library Now -
Milwaukee PBS -
Black Child Development Institute -

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