Bronx Barriers: Literacy Challenge

The Norwood News and WFUV are collaborating on a five-part series profiling different types of illiteracy impacting the Bronx.

(L-R) NORMA HERNANDEZ and Juanita Bermudez are friends and classmates at Phipps Neighborhoods’ Adult Literacy Program.
Photo by Shannon Meehan

The South Bronx, a vibrant neighborhood of working families, faces a literacy crisis that is affecting most of the area’s residents. Despite efforts by nonprofits and reading programs, the South Bronx has one of the lowest literacy rates of all five boroughs, intertwining with incomes in the South Bronx. Both facets remain low.

Strides to break the cycle of illiteracy are being made in the South Bronx, though progress has not advanced enough. It still remains the poorest and has the most unemployed, according to a 2016 report by South Bronx Rising Together (SBRT), a group linked to increasing educational success for students in the South Bronx.

“It’s not that some people can read, while other people simply cannot read, end of story,” says Elizabeth Clay Roy, chief of staff at Phipps Neighborhoods, a social service nonprofit, and co-director of SBRT. “It’s that many people can read, but have trouble deciphering a complex letter or phrase.”

The inability to read to get by on daily living and job responsibilities is defined as functional literacy. In some cases, it can lead to not having a job or not having a well-paying job, at least. Figures by Literacy Partners, an education nonprofit, show those with limited reading skills, or low-literate, earn a maximum income of $18,000. Meantime, only three in five adults living in the South Bronx have earned a high school diploma while one in 10 has earned a four-year college degree, according to the SBRT report.

“Forty percent of children living in the Bronx are living in poverty and that adds another layer of challenges,” says Chabely Ramos, a former community manager for Literacy Inc. “A child raised in poverty is 13 times less likely to finish high school on time, if at all.”

Critical Time
Third grade stands as a time when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”  The bulk of third grades in the South Bronx haven’t caught up yet, with 70 percent of third grade students unable to read on grade level, according to Ramos. The New York City Department of Education has found that children who fail to meet the third grade benchmark are more likely to drop out of high school and remain in poverty.

Regina Campbell, the assistant director of Learning and Career Development at Phipps Neighborhoods says, “The correlation with illiteracy and poverty is a chicken and the egg situation of what comes first. Is it illiteracy that leads to poverty or is it because it’s the areas of poverty there is an increased risk of illiteracy?”

To address that, centers such as the Crotona Park Family Reading Room, established as part of Phipps Neighborhoods’ early learning initiative, opened to the public. The reading room recognizes the need for parents and children to have access to an environment that makes learning fun, while also encouraging one-on-one reading time with parents and children.

Beth James takes her children, ages 2, 5, and 13 to the Family Reading Room every day and says that it would be impossible for her to take them to the local library since it’s 10 blocks away from her home. James credits the center with sparking her children’s zest for learning, especially reading.

Phipps Neighborhoods offers literacy programs for children and adults of all ages with various literacy needs and goals. “In our adult population we see that for whatever reason, they (the students) see the importance of getting their education now. A lot of them recognize that they need it to be able to meet the needs of their own kids at home, whether their child is bringing home homework and they don’t understand and they can’t assist,” says Campbell.

Language Barriers
While economic factors may contribute to literacy crisis, a student’s literacy is also determined by parent involvement. That poses challenges for children whose parents can’t read or children of foreign-born parents.

(L-R) REGINA CAMPBELL, assistant director of Learning and Career Development for Phipps Neighborhoods and Tamara Brown, program coordinator for the Young Adult Literacy Program for Phipps Neighborhoods.
Photo by Shannon Meehan

Maria Gonzalez de Sanchez moved to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic six months ago and just last month started taking an English as a Second Language course after she was unable to communicate with her child’s teachers. Through a translator, Gonzalez de Sanchez says even as her son translates for her, she still “feels lost.” Even basic tasks “become a challenge not knowing the language when there is no one there that speaks Spanish.”

Gonzalez de Sanchez’s peers, Norma Hernandez and Juanita Bermudez, came from Puerto Rico and have taken part in the adult literacy program since last September.

Hernandez, a mother of four, says she wants to get her GED because she is unable to get a job without it and hopes to serve as an inspiration for her children. While she finds going back to school a challenge, she hopes going back will show her children that anything is possible.

After leaving her job of nearly 20 years, Bermudez realized she needed her diploma for her next job. “When I started working, having your GED was not a requirement, but things have changed. Now you need your high school diploma for a higher paying job. If you don’t have it, you don’t fit in,” Bermudez says.


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