Kern County schools, libraries, and organizations fight back against low literacy rates

Resource-strapped schools, a high percentage of English language learners, and rising chronic truancy are all contributing to Kern County's low student literacy rates.
Posted at 5:51 PM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-24 21:48:43-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — When we think about reading, books are the first thing to come to mind, but it's so much more. Traffic signs, menus, instructions - so many aspects of our lives revolve around being able to read, and when that is not the case, small tasks become huge barriers.

According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 million U.S. adults, one in five, have low literacy skills. California itself has a long history of struggling to meet reading standards, and in Kern County, it's an even bigger issue.

Jerome Drimble, a student of the Kern Literacy Council, feels filled with pride as he reads from the latest story he is tackling.

"Back then," Drimble says, speaking of a time before he came to the literacy council, "I could not have read this."

Drimble has only been learning at the KLC in Bakersfield for a couple of months, and he thanks his teacher, Carol Bennet, for the new boost of confidence.

"Now I can go to a restaurant, order what I want to order, pick up a book i want to read," Drimble said.

Drimble has dyslexia, which is when a person has difficulty relating the sounds of speech to words written on a page, making reading difficult. He remembers how he started to fall through the cracks from a young age.

"School was tough for me, especially when you see other kids reading books and you couldn't read that book," said Drimble.

He says the schools he went to kept passing him on to the next grade just to move him along. Now, with some motivation from his wife and nephew, he is filling in those gaps.

"I am doing something that I can help others with. I can help my niece and my nephews out, and I help them learn how to read," said Drimble.

Indeed, passing on good reading habits to the next generation is key. Drimble knows very well that falling behind early just piles up through the rest of someone's life.

Standardized test results show a potential threat of that exact situation happening with students in Kern County.

Schools estimate overall literacy rates among students with standardized tests given to those in grades 3 through 8, and again in grade 11. How students perform on the English language arts portion of those tests is the metric schools use to determine literacy.

Since 2014, test scores show that only 33 percent of Kern County students met or exceeded the state standard. This number increases slightly each year, peaking at 43 percent during the 2018-19 school year.

Due to the pandemic, which interrupted so many things about education for students, testing was also suspended over 2020.

The next year, in 2021, Kern students had dropped back down to 39 percent meeting or exceeding state English language arts standards.

Despite the ups and downs over the past several years, the truth, according to the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, is that those rates were never that great to begin with.

Cole Sampson, Administrator of Professional Learning and Student Support for KCSOS, says there are many factors contributing to the low numbers.

"One of the highest poverty rates in the state, one of the lowest education attainments in the state, so a lot less people in our country getting college degrees," said Sampson. "And this, at times, can make parents feel unequipped, with the schools needed to support their struggling students at home."

Having grown up in Bakersfield, Sampson still remembers coming down to Beale Memorial Library as a kid, and understands sometimes parents know the importance of reading, but have different priorities out of necessity.

"They are asked to work a second job that is competing with that time even though they know the importance of reading at home, and they have to make a tough decision between supporting their student or putting meals on the table," said Sampson.

Sampson adds that just showing up to school is half the battle.

"We have absolutely seen a dramatic increase in the last two years of chronic absenteeism, which means kids missed 10 percent or more of the school year," said Sampson.

Studies show that students who miss 10 or more days of instruction in a year are at risk of falling behind, and those who miss 18 or more days are at risk of dropping out.

Demographics also play a role.

"Our high percentage of our English language learners in our county, and this just adds additional barriers, as these are students who are learning English as a language. Not only do they need to learn to read, they must learn English first and the foundations of the language to be able to support that," Sampson said.

Over the past couple of years, English learners in Kern County schools have tested lowest, followed by students with disabilities, then homeless youth, and finally socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

KCSOS, which focuses on supporting districts, has provided professional development for Kern teachers to better understand how to work with the area's diverse student population, varying reading levels, and cultural backgrounds.

Beyond helping educators with curriculum, KCSOS focuses on parents as the first set of teachers.

"As you are in the car, 'Can we play rhyming games? I see a cat, can you tell me what rhymes with cat?' Or if you are at a restaurant, 'Can you help me read the menu?' If you are in the grocery line, 'Can you help me read that magazine?'" said Sampson. "Literacy and language is all around us, so we just need to stop and be aware of it, and help our students regardless of our setting. See that."

KCSOS will also be launching a program in the spring to support parents in these efforts.

Although it's best to start people reading young, Drimble shows that it is never too late to learn.

"Look at me. I am doing it, and I know other people who can do it, too. Put your heart out there and you can do the things you want to do. You can get the jobs you wanted. You can read the book you wanted," said Drimble.

Among the countless efforts organizations and officials in Kern County have done to combat low literacy rates is the Beale Memorial Library's Snacks in the Stacks Program, where people age 2 to 18 can get a free meal when they come to the library to do homework from 3:00 to 5:00 pm during the week.