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Why 43 Percent of Students in America’s 5th Most Literate City Struggle to Read and Write

It's called the literacy paradox. #ProjectLiteracy

"Bright Atlanta" by Brett Weinstein via Wikimedia Commons.

In April, the annual index of America’s most literate cities ranked Atlanta at No. 5—just behind Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Drawn from an evaluation of local booksellers, educational achievements, and resources like libraries and internet access across 75 major metropolitan areas, the ranking was just another feather in the city’s cap. Frequently positioning itself as a cultural center of the South, Atlanta boasts several of the nation’s top universities, and has been called one of America’s best cities for finding a job.


As might be expected, students enrolled in the Minneapolis public school system consistently outrank their competitors on national educational assessments. Yet in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta—two of America’s most educated cities—there exists a literacy paradox: The majority of public school students fare poorly, consistently scoring far below the national average in reading and math.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 percent of Atlanta’s fourth-grade students were at a “below basic” reading level as recently as 2013. Though 94 percent of Atlanta’s white students read at a basic level or above, that number goes down to about half for black and Hispanic students.

For certain sectors of Atlanta’s population, the city could hardly be called a literate metropolis. The literate cities index focuses on the “use of literacy” in America’s cities—essentially, it doesn’t consider whether or how many inhabitants successfully read and write, but how and where those who are already literate choose to to do so.

An abandoned elementary school in south Atlanta. Image by Flickr user Zlatko Unger.

“We [in Atlanta] have a really talented, smart population. We also have a population that has had a generational lack of access to education,” says Austin Dickson, executive director of Literacy Action, an Atlanta nonprofit offering classes in adult basic education, as well as courses in workplace and family literacy. This year alone, the organization expects to serve 1,300 underserved students.

A review of 2010 census data and Literacy Action’s own five-county assessment of adults over 25 without a high-school diploma revealed that at least 800,000 adults in Atlanta were functionally illiterate. Taking into account population increases, Dickson estimates that the number has grown to 900,000—nearly 28 percent of the population. And many of those adults grew up attending Atlanta’s city schools, which largely serve low-income communities: 75 percent of Atlanta’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (and those who do scored 45 points lower on reading tests in 2013).

Over 40 percent of high-schoolers in Atlanta do not graduate in four years, double the national drop-out average. (Even those with a high school diploma face the second-highest unemployment rates in the nation, worse only for those in Detroit.) Put simply, if you are born poor in Atlanta, you are highly likely to remain poor. A recent study named Atlanta’s Fulton County among the worst at lifting poor children out of poverty. Of the 2,478 U.S. counties examined, Fulton fared better than only about six percent.

“For those in the lower socioeconomic group, the systems are failing them,” says Gayle King, who runs a program in southwest Atlanta that teaches reading skills to adults between the ages of 17 and, for the time being, 76. Most enter King’s program reading at the fourth-to-sixth grade level.

One in three Atlanta eighth graders scored below grade-level in reading in 2014, and the odds worsen as they move on to high school. “By the time most people drop out in ninth or tenth grade,” Dickson explains, “they’re reading and writing on a third-grade level and they’ve been frustrated for years.”

Sakari Balam is a graduation coach at Crim High School in southeast Atlanta, where last year only six percent of students graduated in four years. Many students transfer to the open campus, which offers classes over an eleven-hour span of the schoolday, after having struggled at one of the city’s roughly thirteen other high schools.

“For the most part, these kids come deficient and should have been picked up long before they got to any high school,” explains Balam, pointing to the early start of many students’ academic troubles. When asked what causes Atlanta’s illiteracy issues, Austin Dickson’s answer isn’t so surprising: Poverty.

Schoolteachers, counselors, and adult literacy instructors across the city echoed myriad poverty-related obstacles that their students face in attaining an education, including caring for an ill family member or for siblings in place of a deceased parent, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and financial hardship (for example, students putting earning an income for the household ahead of their schooling).

Undiagnosed learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, also pose a problem. Dickson noted that nearly 45 percent of his organization’s students were undiagnosed upon entering the literacy program. It’s a problem he refers to as an “undercurrent” in low-performing or underfunded school districts, where resources to diagnose and support such students are lacking.

“A lot of our parents don’t have a formal education themselves so they struggle with helping their own children,” says Aisha Burchfield, an Atlanta Public School elementary school teacher. Several Atlanta teachers mentioned the importance of parents reading to children as early as in the womb.

“You have to look at the socioeconomic factor of the household,” notes Dr. Albenny Price, an administrator at Atlanta Public School’s Adult Learning Center. “What is the most important thing in terms of the household?” he asked. “Is education important?”

Crucially, there are several organizations working to fill the literacy gap in Atlantans’ lives when education isn’t prioritized at home. (Prospective volunteers can find out more here and here.) And in the meantime, Atlanta’s nearly 35 libraries, located all over the city, offer wide-ranging free activities and events daily—everything from teen writing contests to toddler story time.

“It starts at home,” says Balam.

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