Empowerment through Literacy: My Perspective on CDL’s Literacy and Economic Development Summit
By Bailey Chauvin
If I’m being honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I arrived at the River Center Branch Library for the Center for Development and Learning’s Literacy and Economic Development Summit.
I strongly believe in the importance of improving Louisiana’s literacy rate and have learned a lot through my experiences as a CDL intern, but since this event was primarily for educators and business/nonprofit leaders, I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to take away from the summit as a non-expert in any of those industries.
However, I left the summit feeling more inspired and ready to do my part in bettering Louisiana’s literacy education than ever before.
The summit primarily focused on the intersection of literacy and statewide economic development, but many of the speakers also addressed the more direct, personal effects that illiteracy can have on students and their families.
Dr. Kymyona Burk, the summit’s keynote speaker, was especially effective at driving this point home. Illiteracy is a silent epidemic that can have devastating effects on a person’s likelihood to graduate high school and live above the poverty line. Dr. Burk also explained that these effects can be compounded for minority students — while students in general who aren’t reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school, African American and Hispanic students in this position are six times more likely to drop out before graduation.
Illiteracy may be an epidemic, but it’s an epidemic with a known cure. Dr. Burk, who led Mississippi’s implementation of its Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013, described how the institution of a focused, statewide literacy policy has had dramatically positive effects for Mississippi’s students. While Mississippi once lagged behind the nation’s average on the fourth grade NAEP reading exam, it tied the national average in 2019 while also being the only state to see a score increase that year.
A successful comprehensive early literacy approach doesn’t start and stop in the classroom though — it involves every aspect of the community.
In a panel of education leaders moderated by Dr. Burk, Kristen Wynn, the Mississippi Department of Education’s state literacy director, provided tangible examples of how community partnerships can enhance a state’s literacy policy as it did in Mississippi.
One example she gave that I found particularly eye-opening was a partnership between the state’s department of education and optometric association. The optometric association offers free eye exams for all third grade students who failed their literacy test to determine if they have vision problems that are impeding their ability to read. To me, this is a perfect example of how local business and industry can have direct impacts on students’ literacy journeys — it just takes some creativity and the willingness to get involved.
The second half of the summit centered around how the state’s literacy rate impacts its economy. While educators are often rightfully focused on how illiteracy negatively affects a student’s ability to learn and progress in school, Susana Schowen from LED FastStart shared that literacy is a key factor in many successful life transitions, including those that occur long after a person leaves school to join the workforce.
At this point of the summit, I was admittedly still wondering how literacy directly impacts every aspect of Louisiana’s economy when the state has so many large industries (think healthcare, engineering, etc.) that seem to be far more technology- and science-based than reading-based.
However, as Ms. Schowen explained, STEM fields involve literacy skills more than you may think. Through literacy, today’s students learn to understand complex texts, develop their critical thinking and analysis skills, and increase their capacity for innovation and creativity, which can transform them into the STEM and business leaders of tomorrow.
The summit closed with a discussion between Neva Butkus of the LA Budget Project and Barry Erwin from Council for a Better Louisiana about how the state can implement policy strategies that improve its literacy rate. Much of this panel focused on the large number of early childhood education and literacy bills that legislators introduced ahead of the 2021 legislative session.
The panelists noted that many legislators campaign on the importance of improving the state’s literacy rate and educational opportunities every year, yet every year Louisiana’s students are left behind. Butkus noted that, despite their campaign promises, legislators who aren’t acting to improve the state’s situation through supporting bills that would benefit students are ultimately choosing this inaction.
This point stuck with me. It’s easy to support early childhood education and literacy in theory and when attending engaging programs like this, but putting those ideas into action through supporting educators, engaging business and industry partners, and passing meaningful legislation is what counts.
At the end of the day, literacy isn’t just about reading comprehension. Literacy is empowerment — empowerment for students, for families, for communities, for the economy, and for the state at large.
I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to hear from many of Louisiana’s education, business, and policy leaders at CDL’s summit and am looking forward to doing everything I can to empower students and improve this state’s educational and economic outlook by supporting early childhood education and literacy.
Intern, The Center for Development & Learning