When the summer began, 10-year-old Diane was unable to read. After several years in school, she had still managed to slip through the cracks somehow. According to the Turks and Caicos Education Ministry, there are several gaps in the system that they are trying desperately to close. Their research says that 89% of students in the school system are reading below grade level. 36% are reading one grade level below, 23% are two grade levels below, and 30% are three or more grade levels below.
This has motivated United Way Turks and Caicos Islands' (UWTCI) renewed focus on increasing early-grade literacy in their community. Since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic, UWTCI has been working to close the gaps that threaten to swallow children like Diane whole. Children in the Turks and Caicos Islands officially begin school at five or later. Unfortunately, many of them start school with little exposure to reading.
United Ways worldwide have long recognized the importance of early literacy in long-term educational success. UWTCI continues that trend by intervening at the earliest possible juncture. Their Lit from Birth program provides parents with books to read to their newborns before leaving the Cheshire Hall Medical Center, where all of the territory's children are born. Along with the Youth Help Foundation that provides the books, UWTCI can offer continuing support to parents in their child's early years to increase their best chances when they are enrolled in school.
But there are instances in which children are enrolled on time, have familial support, and still do not meet reading benchmarks. To address this, UWTCI hosted a round of consultations with the community to share research on the progress of local children and solicit recommendations. The response was overwhelming. Judges, teachers, psychologists, and other professionals answered the call to lead the consultations. The first consultation was woman-led. Of the 62 participants, 34 signed up to volunteer, and 10 became donors. Most significantly, the final consultation, called Playground and Conversation, allowed the Turks and Caicos Islands children to share their challenges and hopes with the adults in the community.
While student-led consultations are a novel approach, increasing literacy in their community has always been UWTCI's priority. Initiatives such as Lit from Birth and the Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) are fundamental to the Turks and Caicos United Way's work. UWTCI Chairman Mark A. Fulford says the SEP has been “carefully designed to enrich the lives of the participants of this camp, by enhancing their skills in Reading, Math, Science and Arts & Crafts. My board of directors are elated to be providing the funding for this camp as we are sure that any investment into the youth of this country is a good investment.” When SEP welcomed its 2023 cohort of 78, 12 children between the ages of 7 and 14, including Diane, who could not read. As a participant in the UWTCI summer program, she will benefit from an afterschool intervention beginning in September. UWTCI volunteers have already committed to providing one-on-one tutoring during the next school term.
And like all children the United Way supports, Diane has taken the opportunity to thrive. When the summer enrichment program ended in late July, many children had made giant steps toward literacy, and so had she. On the program's final day, she had already progressed far enough to stand in front of her peers and read simple sentences.
If you want to learn how you can help children everywhere access educational opportunities, visit your local United Way to learn more.