THE BLOG
08/29/2015 05:57 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2016

Food and Phonics

A Literal and Figurative Meaning of Children's Needs

As the inaugural edition of my blog, "Food and Phonics," I thought I would take a moment to explain the thinking behind its name. Washington, DC, my hometown is lauded for having an array of decadent tourist attractions including museums that punctuate the great contributions made by artists all attempting to use art as a means by which to comment on the social, political and economic actualities of the world.

As a District resident, I spend much of my summer Saturdays touring the museums of my hometown and while all of them are stunning in their own right, I recently stumbled into the National Gallery of Art, and into an intriguing session on how artists use contrast to tell a story or to offer interpretation. In the art world, contrast is the difference between two or more elements (e.g., value, color, texture) in a composition or the difference between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. As I toured the National Gallery of Art looking for examples of contrast in the art pieces, I could not help but think about the two very decisive portraits of DC: the "haves," and the "have nots" ostensibly titled "west of the park," and "east of the river."

Juxtaposing the two yield a very clear difference between communities that share the same city name, but nevertheless experience two very different realities. For one community those experiences are decisively burdensome, and for the other, those experiences are fiercely beneficial and the children of both communities experience either the burden or benefit more indelibly than any other community member. Uncovering the lightest and darkest areas of "west of the park," and "east of the river," reveal that for "west of the park" 2 in 3 children will attend and finish college, whereas for "east of the river," 3 in 5 children will serve long stretches of prison time. A closer look at the contrast between the two reveals a light in "west of the park," where less than 5% of its children live in poverty, but a darkness in "east of the river," that reveals nearly 50% of its children live at or below the poverty level. This contrast is at best disheartening, and at worst it is criminal. As I continue to analyze the contrast in the two portraits, I came to realize that a real juxtaposition can be made in the difference between the ability of each community to give its children the most basic needs. I looked up the definition of "basic," and found that according to Webster's Dictionary, "basic," means "forming an essential foundation or starting point; fundamental "certain basic rules must be obeyed."

It was having a clear understanding of the concept of basic that led me to name my blog. Almost every psychological, sociological, anthropological, and educational piece of research with any integrity notes that when the most basic needs of children are met, their life outcomes, and ability to determine and seize upon opportunities for an improved quality of life drastically expand. In essence, the basic needs of children can be summed up into two synchronizations: food and phonics. For me there was a perfectly designed, yet dark irony that would see two communities, merely a few neighborhood blocks from one another, where one could envelope its children in the finest assurances of a good start, while the other community could do little to execute on ensuring that its children had a salubrious beginning. Food and phonics are assuredly the basics, and whether they are considered figuratively or metaphorically, through their interdependence both components represent the compass for a favorable life trajectory, especially given that 75% of Americans who receive food stamps perform at the lowest 2 levels of literacy, and 90% of high school dropouts are on welfare.

While food most definitely can be taken at face value, what food ultimately offers is nutrients that is needed to ensure healthy physiological and cognitive development. To that end, what food represents can be expanded to include guaranteeing that every child has quality housing, and quality healthcare. Moreover, children need a healthy community to protect them from the perils of an exploitative economy.

Phonics refers to ensuring that all children have the fundamentals in both reading and mathematics so that they are equipped to be victors of achievement, instead of victims of the achievement gap. The need to ensure high quality "food," and highly effective "phonics" is evident in a recent study conducted by Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College; a syndicate of the City University of New York. Dr. Hernandez compared the reading scores and graduation rates of nearly 4,000 students from public K12 schools. Dr. Hernandez found that students who could not read on grade level by 3rd grade, are almost 4 times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who can read proficiently by 3rd grade. Further, students from high poverty backgrounds, who also could not read on grade level by 3rd grade were 13 times less likely to graduate on time than peers from wealthier backgrounds, and who could read on grade level in 3rd grade.

In the same way that food can be expanded past its literal meaning, to describe the physical, psychological, social and emotional needs of all children, phonics too can be expanded past its literal meaning to describe the academic and education needs of all children. High quality schools, and educational opportunities must ensure that every child, again, irrespective of their socioeconomic background receives strong foundations in 21st century skills and the skills needed to be college ready. A further example of the importance of "food and phonics," can be seen in a U.S. Department of Justice's report which reveals a link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime. In the report, Justice Officials confirm that there is an unequivocal connection between abhorrent behavior and poor reading ability. Evidence from the report offers that 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over 70 percent of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. Early childhood, when food and phonics, especially at their most literal meanings are most critical spans from in utero to 3rd grade.

Demonstrations of the importance of food and phonics yet again manifest themselves in the fact that 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Further, teenage girls between the ages of 16 to 19 who live at or below the poverty line and have below average literacy skills are 6 times more likely to have children out of wedlock than girls their age who can read proficiently. Ultimately, this blog will seek to do more than explore the importance of food and phonics, as critical roles in the lives of children, especially vulnerable children, but in fact this blog will serve as a call to action ensuring likeminded stakeholders and defenders of children collaborate to ensure that they receive high quality "food," and superior "phonics" in both their literal and expanded meanings.

It will attempt to define what good food and phonics is for children from high poverty rural and urban communities, for children with learning, emotional and physical disabilities, for children who are victims of bullying, for children who attend high and low performing public and public charter schools, for children who are struggling learners, for children who are transgender, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, for children who are in foster care, for children that suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and hopelessness, for children orphaned by AIDS, drug addiction and alcoholism, for children who have an incarcerated parent or parents, for children who are homeless. Ultimately, this blog is about what food and phonics, looks like for all children. I want to do more than add a voice to the conversation, but rather add action to a growing, long overdue movement to ensure that all children reach and fulfill their potential.

Source: 11 Facts About Literacy in America. https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-literacy-america