New Initiative Calls on Community to Battle Illiteracy

March 3, 2015

The statistics are staggering. Across the country and at home in Northeastern Pennsylvania, illiteracy is rampant, widespread enough to be classified as a crisis.

In the United States, according to the Literacy Project Foundation, 45 million Americans, or roughly 14 percent of the population, cannot currently read above a fifth-grade level, and only a third of fourth-graders read at the level of proficient.

In Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of adults lacked basic prose literacy skills in 2003, the latest year for which such numbers are listed. In Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wayne and Wyoming counties, according to that same report, 12 percent of adults were illiterate in the same time period. The problem was a bit better in Pike County, affecting 10 percent of adults, but a bit worse in Susquehanna County, affecting 13 percent of adults.

According to statistics pulled from the 2010 Census and reported on the United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania website, the problem is escalating, with nearly 18 percent of Lackawanna County adults classified as educationally disadvantaged, most of them functionally illiterate.

Those figures do not surprise M. Sandra Lamanna, a faculty specialist in the Education Department at The University of Scranton, who has spent her career watching this problem linger.

“I worked as a school psychologist in public schools for 31 years, and I’m not seeing major change in the literacy development of the students,” said professor Lamanna. “The majority of students who have IEPs (individualize education plans) are students with reading disabilities. Generally speaking, the number of these students have been stable or increasing rather than decreasing. We are also seeing an increase in the number of students who demonstrate a need for remedial reading services. Therefore, in many school districts, we are not closing the gap between those with good and poor reading skills.”

She and three University colleagues: fellow faculty specialist Sandra Pesavento; Debra A. Pellegrino, Ed.D., dean of the Panuska College of Professional Studies; and certified registered nurse practitioner Teresa M. Conte, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nursing – have teamed with two professional colleagues: Gina Colarossi, supervisor of special education in the Scranton School District; Mary Lou Heron of the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19; and Jenna Stoddard, school psychologist for the Blue Ridge School District – to rally the community, especially its most front-line professionals, around the problem of illiteracy.

Their efforts are collectively known as the National Reading Crisis Project and will be developed in the northeastern region of Pennsylvania over a three-year-period then extended to other counties in the state. The partnership will target four main stakeholders: health-care professionals, educators, families and community agencies.

Their program begins with a March 10 training seminar for nurses in Brennan Hall’s Rose Room on the University’s campus. Professor Lamanna said the seminar focuses on the correlation between untreated chronic ear infections in children and deficits in phonological processing, an essential component of successful reading.

Children who experience frequent ear infections are at risk for such speech-sound disorders if the ear infections are accompanied by hearing loss, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (www.asha.org).

The nurse training seminar targets school nurses in all 20 school districts within NEIU 19, which serves Lackawanna, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties.

“We want nurses to identify children who are presenting with chronic ear infections and be an extra set of eyes to make sure kids are achieving reading benchmarks,” Professor Lamanna said. In other words, she said, if a nurse is aware of a student having a history of ear infections, he or she “might review their reading grades every quarter.”

Area pediatricians and health care providers have been invited to a physician training seminar in POSH at the Scranton Club on March 26. The seminar will hew closely to the concepts that drive the national Reach Out and Read program and will help pediatricians and general practitioners understand that illiteracy is indeed a crisis, Professor Lamanna said.

According to Professor Lamanna, one goal of the conference is to encourage physicians to make literacy screenings a regular part of wellness visits and ask them to disseminate literature that addresses the importance of talking to and reading to children.

Early literacy and early education are critical, and both are key goals of Reach Out and Read, an evidence-based nonprofit organization founded in Boston in 1989. Reach Out and Read works with medical professionals in all 50 states, and its goals, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, include ensuring that children enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills, according to www.reachoutandread.org.

A signature event of the literacy effort will take place April 22 and targets all reading specialists in NEIU 19, Professor Lamanna said. Superintendents, school-board presidents and elected officials also will be invited.

The keynote speaker for that event will be G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor of Education Leadership and Policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and a Distinguished Scientist in the School of Brain & Behavior Sciences at the University of Texas in Dallas.

Dr. Lyon founded and serves as CEO of Synergistic Education Solutions, an educational consulting firm, and has become a leader in the development of evidence-based education policy at federal and state levels. He advised President George W. Bush on education research and policies. From 2001 until 2005, he directed programs at the National Institutes of Health, as well as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The first trio of major efforts led by The University of Scranton, the Scranton School District and NEIU 19 might be aimed at the medical and educational sector, Professor Lamanna said, but many others have a role in literacy as well.

“I would like everyone to understand that this is a national problem,” she said. “Illiteracy is not solely the schools’ responsibility but a community effort.”

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