A committee of educators and specialists has begun working on a plan to address literacy in Joplin as part of Vision 2022, a resident-driven effort to imagine what the city could look like in five years.
The group, which met Tuesday morning at the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, will spend its time focusing on literacy among pre-kindergarten students and adults, two populations that are not necessarily served by local K-12 school districts.
Norm Ridder, interim superintendent of the Joplin School District and the sponsor of the Vision 2022 education team, said literacy encompasses a wide variety of skills such as reading, speaking, listening, information-gathering, critical thinking and the ability to reason.
Improving literacy rates among both children and adults could affect things such as voter turnout, high school graduation rates and workforce readiness, he said.
"It's not a matter of getting Joplin to read books," he said. "It's a matter of building a high level of confidence and wanting to know more to get better — that's the critical piece of literacy, and that's when reading is automatic."
Many committee members who work with children said they believe that improving literacy among society's youngest members must begin with their parents.
Jeff Goldammer, who oversees local Head Start programs, said his organization has worked with parents to help them understand the potential achievement gap that their children could face when they reach kindergarten. He cited a study from University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley that suggests children from low-income families hear 30 million fewer words by age 4 than children from families with higher incomes.
"The parent is the first and best teacher for their child, and the parent is the best person who can address that gap," Goldammer said.
In Joplin, an average of 19 percent of children — a range of 5 percent to 32 percent, depending on the specific elementary school — enter kindergarten without appropriate readiness skills, district employees said. They said they can typically tell which children have come from households where their parents converse with them, and which children spend most of their time at home in front of a TV or computer screen.
"The listening with the parents who encourage that — speaking with them, using rich language with them before they go to school — those are the things that are working," said Kitty Ward, a literacy specialist with Cecil Floyd Elementary School.
Committee members noted that there could be a significant amount of overlap in targeting the literacy of young children and adults.
"We know that the single greatest determinant of a child's educational success is the parent's literacy, so how do we reach the parents that don't maybe even know enough to care?" said Marj Boudreaux, executive director of Joplin NALA Read. "If parents aren't reading (by themselves), they're not reading to their children."
On the adult level of literacy, much of the discussion revolved around how to encourage the lifelong acquiring and retention of knowledge to improve the area's workforce. Jasen Jones, executive director of the Southwest Missouri Workforce Innovation Board, noted that reading in an employment setting isn't about enjoying literature; it's about understanding information in order to follow instructions and perform the job adequately.
"So are we focused on creating a citizen that can read or a citizen that can work or reading to inform a citizen?" Ridder asked. "I think it's all of the above."
All committees of Vision 2022 anticipate presenting their work to the Joplin City Council in April.