Early childhood literacy is key to student success as well as the economic future of the state of Texas.
This critical message was stressed at the first day of FESTIBA (Festival of International Books and Arts) March 28 at The University of Texas-Pan American. A packed ballroom of educators and teachers attended on a day dedicated to their service and to hear from a Congressional Roundtable on Hispanic Literacy.
According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment focused on 15 year-olds' capabilities in reading, math and science literacy, the United States now ranks 14th among 34 industrialized nations trailing behind China, South Korea, Canada, Finland and others, where between 97 and 99 percent who start kindergarten are graduating from high school and going on to higher education.
"My greatest concern is that every year millions of young people do not graduate from high school. In our lowest performing high schools we lose about 50 percent of Latino and African American students," said Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15), one of the roundtable's panelists. "To accomplish President Obama's ambitious goal of leading the world in college graduates it is imperative that we transform our dropout factories and insure that a greater number of students graduate and are college or career ready."
Hinojosa described legislation proposed to reform the nation's lowest performing high schools and support early childhood education. He was joined by others in discussing efforts to improve literacy not only locally but statewide and nationally. Other panelists included U.S. Congressman Blake Farenthold (TX-27); Dr. Judy Cheatham, vice president, Reading is Fundamental; Rita Haecker, president, Texas State Teachers Association; Jennifer Peters, LSTA/Texas Reads grants administrator, Texas State Library and Archives; Matthew Gollub, children's book author; and Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, UTPA president.
Nelsen, who described some programs the University offers to support student success, also stressed the importance of literacy, not just at UTPA but to Texas and the nation.
"Studies show that early reading is the key not only in academics but in life itself. You can draw a direct correlation between literacy rates and crime rates, dropout rates, and graduation rates," he said. "In Texas, only 61 percent of the students graduate. In the Valley it is only one out of two - 50 percent. The face of this nation is changing. We have to make certain that our Hispanic students have the opportunity to be successful. Literacy will determine our economic future."
The panel agreed that bilingual proficiency is an asset and access to bilingual materials was encouraged. Nelsen said UTPA graduates the most bilingual teachers in the country, 1,000 in the past four years. Of all who have been certified to teach, 95 percent have stayed in the Valley. Nelsen called dual literacy increasingly important and said UTPA is establishing a Bilingual Center at the University.
"By assisting our students in mastering all the academic subjects in at least two languages you are preparing them to thrive in our increasingly global competitive economy," said Hinojosa.
Cheatham said recent research shows that children who have bilingual support, parents who are interested in their education and a teacher, librarian or a community that validates that first language, it ensures success for the students. The bilingual challenges that South Texas faces, Farenthold said, shows that a one-size-fits-all national education program might not work as well here and called for more local control.
He went on to describe memorable reading experiences with his own children.
"It all starts with reading to kids. I don't think it matters what language that it (reading) begins with, but that it happens regularly," Farenthold said. "We need to make reading a part of everyday life."
Peters described the many programs the State Library and libraries from across the state offer to support literacy and lifelong learning. She said some people think libraries are going away but library use has increased.
"Library use in Texas over the past decade has gone up 61 percent in just these two Congressional Districts (15 and 27). There were five million library visits (in those districts) in 2009," she said.
Nelsen summarized the importance of working together to see that students succeed.
"It is only through collaboration and having great teachers and great librarians like you that we will succeed at Pan Am. We will succeed because it is no longer a time for a blame game, instead it is a time to put our hands together and pull the students forward," he said.
After the roundtable discussion, Nelsen presented Hinojosa with the Border Heroes Award for his work in promoting literacy in South Texas and the nation.
"Congressman Hinojosa has been a champion for education," Nelsen said. "He is a true hero and a champion and he is ours and we are proud."
Hinojosa said he was honored and humbled by receiving the award.
"As the son of Mexican immigrant parents who came in 1910 - 100 years ago. I am extremely proud of my heritage and of the United States-Mexico border region and I urge you to keep helping your children to be bilingual and help them graduate from high school and help our students be able to get to college," Hinojosa said.
A self-professed "gringo," Gollub, who speaks English, Spanish and Japanese, said learning other languages has helped him become a better writer and collaborator, as well as develop empathy with the challenges children face in their path to literacy.
He began his presentation by playing the bongo drums and having the audience clap the rhythms he performed. Gollub told educators that illiteracy is a global problem, but they have the ability to grapple with that challenge, starting with how they present reading to children.
Throughout his speech, Gollub read excerpts from his books and used drums, bells and other percussions to create a rhythm to the story. The audience participated in the reading by repeating phrases Gollub performed.
Gollub told the audience how they can use their bodies, voices and movements as well as props to keep children entertained while telling them a story. He also encouraged them to introduce cognates - words that are similar to each other in different languages - at least once a week to build their vocabulary in two languages.
"When we read books to children, when we lovingly shower them, bathe them with words and stories, we're not only helping those children and those children's families, but we're making the world a better place," he said.
Guadalupe Reyes, a library technologist with the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, said he has seen Gollub perform at schools across the school district in the past and has used some of the techniques Gollub showed educators Monday when he has gone to campuses to read to students.
"The more that you interact with them and get them to either repeat certain words or key words the more likely that it is for you to keep their attention," Reyes said. "For example one of the books I read was 'Green Eggs and Ham' by Dr. Seuss. They would finish the sentences for me, so I would make pauses, I would use hand gestures, I would use eye gestures, I would use body movements so I could get a reaction out of them."
FESTIBA continues Tuesday, March 29 with a host of activities including the "Border Heroes" Academic Conference and student panel, second annual juried video and digital media festival, Korean film festival, a presentation on the archaeology and history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a ten-minute play festival, the Hauser Presentational Speaking Contest and the opening of guest artist Kirk Clark's "Soul Searching" exhibit.
For more information on events, visit www.utpa.edu/festiba.