By the time they get to the third grade, eight out of 10 children who grow up in low-income households cannot read at grade-level. In Delaware County, half the households are poor. In Muncie, it’s six out of 10.
Improving that percentage among third-graders is the laser focus of the United Way of Delaware County, which funds 28 nonprofits working to change that statistic by 2024.
“Reading is everything,” says Nancy Carlson, a retired Ball State University journalist, who for the last two years has volunteered every Thursday afternoon at South View Elementary School to read to third graders.
Miss Nancy, as children in her Reading Club know her, has a message to anyone wondering whether what she’s doing is making a difference or whether a donation or volunteer time will really move the needle.
“These children are not lost. They may be 9 or 10 years old and experienced drug and crime and awful things in their houses but they are not lost children,” she said. “There is so much hope for a kid who can latch on to the joy of reading and who can travel with those words and see adventures.”
Carlson, who has earned a reputation for taking on some of the hardest children to reach, attributes a lack of adult interaction to what may be long-lasting damage.
“They are on screens a lot. A lot of kids this age have cell phones,” Carlson said, which is fine except “they’re not seeing words. They don’t know iconic things, like Seattle has a Space Needle or the Eifel Tower is in Paris. They don't know because they’re not reading about these things and these places.”
But hope comes in the responses of the children themselves.
She tells the story of a student who wanted to know where the city his grandmother lived – in Marion – really is. Carlson brought in a map.
“He wanted to know where Marion was,” Carlson said. “The problem with a GPS, you see the world in a tiny cell phone. This called for getting on your hands and knees, and spreading out the map. He thought it was so amusing how it folded. He had never seen a foldable map.”
Carlson sees further promise in consistency.
“It’s so, so, so rewarding. If nothing else, it’s rewarding to have a one-on-one with a little kid who can count on me that I will be there every week,” she says. “If you go every week, they learn to trust you and believe you. They light up when they see me not because I’m so great, but because I came back.”
There’s another story Carlson likes to tell. This one about one of those “difficult” kids. “Everybody thought he was bad. The third graders thought he was bad,” she said. “So, I got “Frankie,” (not his real name). He had absolutely no interest in reading.”
Reading Club takes place in hallways of the schools. Readers and their children line the hallways, backs up against cinder-block, heads in books, reading. Besides South View, Reading Clubs are in Grissom and Longfellow elementary schools.
Generally, adults are not permitted alone with children in classrooms. It’s a matter of safety and one Carlson fully endorses. But on this day, “Frankie” was distracted in the hallway and he spotted a vacant classroom.
“I asked a teacher if we could use that room,” she said. “We sat on the floor and he immediately spotted a NERF football. That’s all he could look at in that room. ‘Miss Nancy,’ let’s play football.’ ”
“I said, ‘oh, no. I’m not athletic. I never really have been.”
‘C’mon, Miss Nancy, go out for a pass,’ he insisted. “I said, oh, okay, I’ll try. And he tossed the ball and I said, oh no, football isn’t really my thing. I’m here to read.”
“He came over and touched my shoulder, ‘Miss Nancy,’ he said, ‘you can be whatever you want to be.’ ”
For Carlson, those words of encouragement spoke volumes. “Some important adult in his life told him that. It registered. He believed that. He counseled me that I could play football, if I set my mind to it.”
That “difficult” kid in Reading Club personified United Way, Carlson says. “It’s a hand on a shoulder and encouraging words to an entire community. ‘You can be whatever you want to be.’ ”