Poverty’s Impact on Literacy and Literacy’s Impact on Poverty

Elementary Boy Reads Alone
Allison Shelley, EDUimages
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In the spring of 1997, I had the opportunity to see the tremendous impact poverty has on education, and since then I have also witnessed the profound impact literacy has on poverty. I was in my 5th and final year at the University of Louisville, and I chose to do my Honors Project on schools in Appalachia Kentucky. I visited a few communities and distinctly remember visiting Burdine Elementary in Jenkins, Kentucky. I recall the friendly staff and lively students. There was a new excitement and optimism in the community as funding was being expanded. With the adoption of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) rural schools were acquiring the necessary resources, making progress, and gaining ground in literacy and math skills. 

In my research, I found that the lack of literacy and focus on education was in large part due to the culture and generational attitudes. It was a poor working-class community that believed in the benefit of hard work, but not necessarily the benefit of education. It was also a relatively isolated community cut off from the “progress” of urban life in many ways. 

Fast forward a couple of decades and years of involvement in a variety of school environments, mostly urban and suburban. Though the environment was different, often the attitudes surrounding education were the same. Poverty in classrooms in the hills of Kentucky may look different than poverty in the classrooms in the city, but it often presents some of the same barriers to education. It definitely produces similar results when not faced with intentional and effective programs that equip students with literacy skills to break the generational cycle. 

I recently spoke with a board member for The West End School in Louisville, Kentucky. This school essentially removes the barriers presented by poverty and successfully equips the students with the academic and life skills needed to break that generational cycle. Over nearly two decades, they have achieved what so many schools are unable to achieve. I have witnessed firsthand the impact of literacy in my brief time at More Grace Christian Academy as well. It is a school that Pastor Cecil Blye started in response to the failure of the local public schools to meet the needs of the students in his congregation. In less than a year, the students have improved academic skills and attitudes about their futures. Just as literacy has changed the landscape of the communities in Appalachia, it can transform our urban communities as well. 

Part of me wishes I could go back and redo my Honors Project. As a young inexperienced college student, I am certain that I approached it from a completely different perspective than I would today. Oddly enough, I believe I would be a much better student today than I was then. I do believe that I would still draw the same conclusion though. Poverty has a tremendous impact on education and literacy has a profound impact on poverty. Some truths are timeless.

Beanie Geoghegan
Beanie Geoghegan is the Chapter Lead for No Left Turn in Education KY. She is a former teacher and reading interventionist and is the mother of four grown readers, writers, and independent thinkers.