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Remember the legacy of Barbara Bush and read to your children this summer

Alan Levine, Guest Commentary • May 20, 2018 at 8:00 AM

The recent death of former first lady Barbara Bush provided a great opportunity for reflection on her great legacy for our nation. Her devotion to literacy reflected the commonsense approach she always took in her service to others. As she once said, “I chose literacy because I honestly believed that if more people could read, write and comprehend, we would be that much closer to solving so many of the problems that plague our nation and our society.”

I agree. Certainly, in health care, literacy and education impacts our patients and their families. In fact, there is a definite correlation between early education, literacy and health. Long-term, adults who didn’t complete high school tend to be less healthy than those who graduated. A 2015 study published by researchers at the University of Colorado, New York University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded “low education is comparable in magnitude to mortality attributable to individuals being current rather than former smokers.”

Wow. That’s a pretty bold statement, and if true, heightens the urgency of making sure our young people receive the education they need. And to do this, they must learn how to read.

Research tells us that third grade is a critical point for students. Youngsters who score below their grade level at this milestone are likely to fall even further behind in subjects like math and science where strong reading skills are critical. Research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that third-graders who do not read at the third-grade level are six times more likely to drop out of high school.

Just imagine being 8 years old and not being able to read. Each year, you fall further behind, and you grow increasingly frustrated that you aren’t learning. And then, you give up. Your prospects for work and prosperity are now limited. In our society today, this is an unfair burden to place on a child. We owe them better.

Our community deserves better, too. If we want to compete to add good-paying jobs, we have to provide a workforce that is literate and prepared. Employers are demanding this. And if they can’t get it here, they will go where they can find such a workforce.

We can be proud of our schools and the educators who dedicate themselves to our children. Our teachers work hard to support children at all levels, but as hard as they work, nothing can replace the time a parent, family member or friend spends with a young child to help them learn to read. And certainly, community-based efforts to support our teachers are helpful as well. Many local and regional organizations make an effort to help our kids learn to read, including Ballad Health.

Ballad Health is making it easier for new parents to start reading to their child thanks to our partnership with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. The Imagination Library sends one new book to a child each month from newborns up to age 5. Children who enroll at birth will have built a small library of 60 books by the time they turn 5. New parents who deliver at one of our hospitals or birthing centers can sign up before discharge, and those who do will leave with their first book, “The Little Engine That Could.”

Another great effort is being made by the Niswonger Foundation. Through their Literacy Initiative Focused on Effectiveness program, or L.I.F.E., they have partnered with schools in Greene and Hancock counties to achieve 80 percent of our third-graders scoring at or above proficiency levels on reading exams. The foundation also funds professional development for teachers and access to expert consultation as well as providing new technology and additional instructional materials for classrooms. I want to thank the Niswonger Foundation — and everyone who contributes to it — for everything they do for our students.

Why is this so important now? Summer is right around the corner. Our youngest kids work throughout the school year to build their reading skills, but those skills can be fragile. I know summer schedules can be busy, but think of what we would be doing for the future of our youth and our region if we challenge ourselves to ensure that all of our youngsters added reading to their schedules this summer. Doing so will likely result in students returning to school in the fall having retained their hard-earned reading abilities — this will mean that they can start building additional capabilities in the fall instead of re-learning lost skills.

Ballad Health will be initiating new programs and efforts, with details to be announced this summer, to assist in our common effort to ensure our third-graders can all read at grade level. In the meantime, we encourage parents, family and friends to take the time this summer to read with our kids. Give our kids the gift of knowledge and the independence that comes with testing their imagination as they read. There are few gifts that will mean as much to our region’s children.

Alan Levine is the executive chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ballad Health. 


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