literacy liberates

As the students pile off the brand new Standard bus company buses across the territory to begin their 2011-2012 school year, do they realize just how important the task before them is for all of us? The politicians and community dignitaries gathered for t

As the students pile off the brand new Standard bus company buses across the territory to begin their 2011-2012 school year, do they realize just how important the task before them is for all of us?

The politicians and community dignitaries gathered for the sod turning at FH Collins Secondary School earlier this week seemed to know. Stacks of studies certainly support the economic, social, political and even health benefits to our society of higher literacy rates.

Putting books in the eager, well-scrubbed hands of Yukon kindergarteners, however, represents only part of the literacy equation. As Literacy BC, an organization that promotes and supports literacy and learning in our provincial neighbour, notes, “Canada’s low literacy rate is a symptom of deep and widespread social inequality created, in large part, by poverty.”

According to last year’s Campaign 2000 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada 610,000, or one in 10 Canadian children, live in poverty (www.campaign2000.ca). They cited the additional fact that this statistic does not include the “one in four children in First Nations communities growing up in poverty.”

Literacy BC believes “these children are often not well served by the school system where they are likely to be labelled and placed in classes where less is expected of them and less may be offered.”

Clearly Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) initiatives must be supported as a part of any effort to address this systemic deficit.

But ECEC programs, which like health care fall under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, from Campaign 2000’s perspective “will continue to remain under-resourced and under-developed as a social determinant of health and a key part of an effective anti-child poverty strategy unless all levels of government – federal, provincial/territorial, First Nations and local – are engaged to play a full role.”

The effectiveness of ECEC efforts as an anti-poverty and pro-literacy tool demands comprehensive support. This simple fact is corroborated by the US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study which found that Head Start programs had no impact on future student test scores.

The authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, offer a likely reason for this in the fact that “instead of spending the day with his own undereducated, overworked mother, the typical Head Start child spends the day with someone else’s undereducated, overworked mother. (And a roomful of similarly needy children.)”

Poor paycheques traditionally has come with ECEC jobs as well.

If we somehow manage to pay the needed attention to our own literacy challenges, we still have the global deficit to face. UNESCO statistics depressingly state “today, one in five adults is still not literate and about two-thirds of them are women while 67.4 million children are out of school.” South Asia and sub-Sahara Africa hold the bulk of the world’s 793 million adults lacking minimum literacy skills but every region is affected. The poverty link to literacy painfully persists globally as well.

International Literacy Day next Thursday focuses in on the essential relationship between literacy and peace. Ultimately a society split by poverty, gross inequality and the resulting low literacy levels cannot long remain at peace.

As Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, states in this year’s International Literacy Day message; “Lasting peace is founded on respect for human rights and social justice.

“In today’s knowledge-driven societies, lack of literacy is more than ever synonymous with exclusion and marginalization … “This unacceptable situation is holding back all efforts to reduce poverty and advance human development.

“It is an infringement of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and a threat to peace and security.

“Literacy is a development accelerator and a force for peace.”

Our students have a lot of work to do this school year and we do as well if they are to succeed. Their success is our success.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.