Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Protect the Vulnerable and Create Opportunity

By Helen Conway

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending a talk with Dick Durbin, a Senior US Senator and Assistant Majority Leader. Durbin is a major proponent of the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would allow undocumented immigrant students who came into the country as minors to earn legal status by attending college or enlisting in the military.

Durbin’s talk focused more on the contested issue of immigration and not on education. However, Durbin said one thing in support of the DREAM Act that stood out to me: “Protect the vulnerable and create opportunity.”

Since arriving at Georgetown, I’ve thought a lot about opportunity. I graduated from a failing public high school. An impoverished community run by a highly politicized and inefficient school board made for lack of resources, lack of community involvement and a lack of vision. 

Clearly, my high school experience was a lot different than that of many of my peers. Upon hearing of my friend’s experiences at private schools or superior public schools, I find myself feeling envious. I value my high school experience but I would have loved the opportunity to attend one of those schools and receive that quality of education. I believe it is the right of every student in America to receive a quality, well-funded education. Not every student should have to attend an elite private school or live in an affluent community for this to be possible.

Education in its current state is a hindrance to the future of our country. Unless bipartisan systematic reform takes place, it will continue on this path. Education creates opportunity however the current educational system is denying thousands upon thousands of deserving students the right to seek such opportunity. Coming from a failing school district, as well as now serving as a literacy tutor in Ward 7, I can speak to this from personal experience.

What can be done to solve such a crisis? I haven’t figured that out yet; that’s why I’m at Georgetown. However, when I become frustrated and despondent, I remember a quote from my favorite TV show – The West Wing. “Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.” You’re so right, Sam Seaborn.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Book a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!

By Justine Achille

Not exactly the phrase we’re used to hearing— but reading one book per day might be just what the doctor prescribed for our DC Reads tutees. Living in a society where the majority of adults are functionally illiterate* leads to low expectations for the future generations and unfortunately, it has also been proven to lead to decreased life expectancy. *(Do not possess the reading/comprehension skills necessary to fill out simple forms such as a job application.)

It may seem strange that the ability to read and understand what you are reading can be tied to your health—but it turns out that there is a direct correlation between literacy and wellbeing. Up to a certain degree, the more literate you are, the healthier you will likely be. But why is this so?

 It all comes down to the definition of health literacy. According to HHS Healthy People 2020, health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needs to make appropriate health decisions.” 
To get a better glimpse at what it might be like to be have very low literacy try reading the following passage that was presented to my Health Promotion and Disease Prevention class: 
GNINAELC – Ot erussa hgih ecnamrofrep, yllacidoirep naelc eht epat sdaeh dna natspac revenehw uoy eciton na noitalumucca fo tsud dna nworb-red edixo selcitrap. Esu a nottoc baws denetsiom htiw lyporposi lohocla. Eb erus on lohocla sehcuot eht rebbur strap, sa ti sdnet ot yrd dna yllautneve kcarc eht rebbur. Esu a pmad tholc ro egnops ot naelc eht tenibac. A dlim paos, ekil gnihsawhsid tnegreted, lliw pleh evomer esaerg ro lio.
(The American Medical Association Foundation & American Medical Association considers this a simulation of how someone who is “non-literate in English” would view a printed page)

It’s difficult, isn’t it?—especially if there is the occasional misspelled word. Well what if I asked you some questions about that paragraph—such as: what color should the particles on the tapehead be when you clean it?—would you be able to answer? Did you even know that this paragraph is about cleaning tapeheads? Do you know what that means? Well now imagine you are a third-grader from Ward 8, twenty years in the future. You are at a doctor’s office reading about a procedure you need to get to stop the horrible headaches you’ve been having—but unfortunately, you read at a first-grade level. That consent form you are reading is going to look a lot like the paragraph above, and chances are you won’t understand the majority of it. 
This scenario occurs every day throughout America. Patients who cannot read at their age-level fail to understand information that is critical to their health. This results in missed appointments, incorrect use of medicine, and potentially death.

To give another example of a common problem in health literacy read the following phrase that is often put on brightly colored labels on medicine bottles: 
This sentence was determined to be at a fourth-grade reading level—about the age of our DC Reads tutees. While it was estimated that a little under two-thirds of people at a fourth-grade reading level would be able to understand this label, in reality only a little over one-third of people at a sixth-grade reading level could understand this. **

Clearly, without good literacy we are setting the future generations up for failure—and potentially poor health. Remember that DC Reads is more than a tutoring program; we are an organization that prepares the youth for success in all areas of life—keeping to the cura personalis motto of Georgetown.

Next time you are at a doctor’s office filling out forms, take note of how many times you cannot understand exactly what is being asked of you, and then reflect on what it must be like to try to read that same form at the reading level of a third-grader.

** Information presented here reflects data found by UNC Program on Health Literacy. See http://www.nchealthliteracy.org/ for more information.