The Impact of Literacy for High School Students

Why is Literacy Important for High School Students?

Literacy is the ability to read and write, and for your children, literacy is the foundation of their education and communication skills. “The prevailing approach to literacy is failing millions of children who are disproportionately Black and brown,” states the Forbes article How ‘Reading Instruction’ Fails Black And Brown Children. The impact of literacy is bigger than most parents realize.

Despite the fact that students are often expected to be literate by the fourth grade, there are shocking statistics, like those shared by The Hill below, regarding literacy rates among young teens, particularly teens within communities of color and those who have faced inequitable access to education. Many students “lack proficiency in reading skills” or are “functionally illiterate” in Georgia. This means that they are considered to be “unable to manage daily living and employment tasks.” 

While this deeply impacts students in our community, this is not exclusive to Georgia, indicating systemic issues nationwide. According to insights from National Assessment of Educational Progress NAEP studies—a sector of the U.S. Department of Education—12th-grade students in the south, in cities or rural areas, Black and Brown students, English language learners, or students with disabilities show higher rates of illiteracy than their counterparts who fall within other demographic or geographic areas. NAEP also showed that, in 2019, Black students in 12th-grade had an average score that was 30 points lower than White students. 

Additionally, children who may not have received an equitable education due to systemic racism, ableism, or poverty, face challenges that trap them in a vicious cycle—educational policies and practices that fail to meet students’ needs, leading to illiteracy, leading to further problems in life caused by those same systemic issues, and so on. The Forbes article mentioned above shares that statistics from childhood illiteracy “translate into greater struggles in high school, lower college attendance and graduation rates, a higher likelihood of incarceration, and generally bleaker futures.” 

At redefinED atlanta, we are working to empower school systems, parents and guardians, students, and our Atlanta community to help create positive and equitable educational opportunities for K-12 students. Last year, we launched our two-year ARISE participatory grant, which provides a $300,000 fund to support Atlanta Public Schools’ goal of increasing student literacy outcomes. This aims to increase literacy proficiency, raising the percentage of students in grades 3-8 reading scores for Georgia Milestones from 36.9 percent, reported in 2019, to 47 percent by August 2026.

It is our job to work together to challenge current scholastic practices that don’t justly serve our children. Literacy impacts all students, and this skillset belongs to all students, including its benefits. 

Benefits of Literacy

A strong command of language sets a strong foundation for academic and job performance, and it promotes essential life and leadership skills, like self- and community-advocacy. Literacy has a variety of other benefits, including:

  • Higher self-esteem 
  • Improved concentration
  • Increased critical and analytical thinking
  • Expanded vocabulary
  • Meeting academic milestones
  • Managing daily living and employment tasks

These are just a few of the many ways that these skills can enrich your child’s life, and as a parent or guardian, you can make a difference. 

Prioritizing Literacy Skills with Your Teen

You may be asking, ‘how can I encourage and grow my teen’s literacy skills at home?’ Time and consistency are a few of the greatest indicators of a good outcome. Encourage your child to set aside time in their schedule to read something they enjoy independently, with their peers, or with you. Even for teenagers, reading with others and reading aloud, as well as listening to others do the same as they follow along, can increase their fluency and comprehension. Reading independently allows time for them to practice their skills. “Motivating students through topics that relate to their own lives and cultures” and new material related to developing interest areas helps them engage more easily with the words and story, according to Forbes. Reading for as little as 15 minutes per day is the consistent practice students’ need to improve. 

You can create a literacy-rich environment at home by getting your child a public library card or encouraging them to check out books from their school library. You can also prompt your child to write creatively, for school or for fun, which can improve literacy skills, as well as their imagination. This can be on paper, a computer, or simply in the notes app on their phone. 

And lastly, your teen has an opportunity to practice and improve literacy on each and every homework assignment they receive. If there are words they don’t recognize or understand, share the definition or have them research the meaning. Praising curiosity could inspire your child to develop a habit of looking up new words or words used in a new context, which can give them the tools they need to continue to expand their vocabulary.

How We Can Improve Literacy Together

Literacy is of the utmost importance for academic and long-term success in your child’s life. This is especially true for high school-aged students whose near-future goals and careers depend on their ability to communicate clearly and effectively. We, at redefinED atlanta, are here to listen and advocate for better educational practices for the children in our Black and Brown or under-resourced communities, as well as provide funding to give students the support they need and improve literacy proficiency in Georgia.

“There’s abundant scientific evidence that explains why our standard approach to reading instruction isn’t working for so many black kids—and others,” according to Forbes. We believe that people in our communities most impacted by injustices need to have more agency and the opportunity to take an active role in order to effectively address the historical inequities in Atlanta’s public school system that contribute to high teenage illiteracy rates. Even with teenagers, it’s never too late to help your child grow their literacy skills, and you don’t have to do that alone.

Fickett Elementary Uses Parent Engagement to Increase Student Attendance

Meeting Families Where They Are

Tonya Holmes acknowledges that sometimes families see social workers as only getting involved when there’s a problem, and she’s working to change that. “I’m here as a resource,” she says. She brings nearly 30 years of experience as a teacher and long-time high school principal to her current position as a school social worker at Fickett Elementary School. 

Now in her second year, she’s focusing on increasing attendance. That’s why she applied for the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) grant. A $150,000 investment by redefinED atlanta, FACE grants support eligible Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in their 2022-23 family engagement efforts. The money, up to $15,000 per school, gives recipients autonomy in how they spend the funds to address their priority needs. 

“redefinED atlanta engages with communities, advocates for equity, and funds critical work to drive systemic level improvement in K-12 public education for students and families,” said Denesha Thompson Pressy, director,  public engagement and advocacy, at redefinED atlanta. “We believe supporting schools’ broader family engagement strategy will lead to a more lasting impact on family engagement in schooling and thereby support student academic and life outcomes, ”she added. 

More Momentum and Shared Understanding

With thoughtful events, information and incentives, Holmes is working on increasing daily attendance momentum and understanding why attendance is so important at home. The program for students kicked off in September, with attendance winners going to the monster truck show. “Then we hit the reset button every month,” she says. “We don’t want you to be knocked out of the running because you missed a few days last month.” 

The announcement comes every morning asking kids to try hard to be at school and to be on time. One month, the winners went to a College Park Skyhawks basketball game, snacks included. Another month, children’s names went into a drawing for a video game console and parents received wireless earbuds, recognizing that the students would only be successful with parent support. Snack bags and perfect attendance t-shirts are other ways Holmes increases the visibility of students with high attendance to encourage more students.

For the Fickett Elementary School community, Holmes uses redefinED atlanta’s F.A.C.E. grant funding to meet people where they are with the information and support they need. “Anytime I have the opportunity for a captive audience of adults, I go,” says Holmes. For one of her outreach efforts, she and her school’s parent liaison organized a school meeting at an apartment complex where about 100 Fickett students live. While attendance was light, those who came left with bookbags full of useful items, and now other parents are asking when she’s coming back. 

To reach out specifically to dads, Holmes joined one of the All-Pro Dad’s meetings to discuss the importance of school attendance. The father’s group involves about 60 men who meet in the school media center monthly. “We have to stop the expectation that raising kids is only the responsibility of mothers,” Holmes says. “The dads were so receptive and happy to be included.”

Removing Barriers

There are many reasons why students at Fickett Elementary might not come to school. A child may need clean clothes because cleaning supplies are expensive. A parent might have a night shift and struggle to get their child ready on time based on when they get home from work. It removes a barrier when Holmes includes laundry detergent in gift bags. Also, she lets families know that even if a student is not on time, the school still wants them to come. “It’s about feeling welcome,” she says. “Better to come late than not come at all.”

Holmes underlines the importance of administrators having the power to allocate funds in the ways their school community needs. “The needs are different from one community to the next,” she says. “Some schools might have the same demographic makeup as ours, but students at that school aren’t missing class because parents have cars or children can walk to school.” In the case of Fickett Elementary many families don’t have cars, and if children miss the bus, they may live too far away to walk. 

At Fickett, there are also a lot of younger families and Holmes is emphasizing why elementary attendance is so critical for students. “With young parents, many of whom are trying to make it from day to day, taking this time to establish relationships will have a long-term impact,” she says. “A change in their mindset is happening.”

Already Holmes has seen an increase in two-way communication. Instead of the school always initiating calls if children are out sick, she’s getting more proactive calls from families that the school can document and keep track of, like if a student is out because of an asthma attack. “When we call parents, we don’t just say a student missed eight days,” she says. “We say, ‘Unfortunately, they’re not doing well in math and not on grade level.’ When my parents hear that, it means more to them — they want more for their children.” 

Her long experience as a high school administrator gives Holmes a unique perspective. “High school students are in control of whether they go to school or not,” she says. “In elementary school, students must rely on supportive adults to set the stage for their whole academic career. This year, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made. I’m very pleased with the parents being receptive. It’s not just about students being in school but being there to maximize their lives and reach their full potential.”

redefinED atlanta funds critical work to drive equity in education and promote great schools in Atlanta. With more flexible resources like the FACE grant, thoughtful leaders like Holmes can continue advancing critical elements of student success, like attendance and family engagement. redefinED atlanta believes the best school leaders and teachers understand their students’ and communities’ unique needs. They work best when given the trust, freedom, flexibility, and support to serve those needs. Active parent and community engagement are essential to establish levers of support for every student. Learn more about our current FACE grant opportunity today.