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Minding Our Business


Getting literacy rolling in South Carolina

Learning to read is not quite as easy as ABC. But it's also not differential calculus.

Our goal as a state is to ensure that every child in South Carolina has the opportunity to learn to read. That's why the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina has launched its $6 million Children, Libraries and Literacy initiative.

As USC President Andrew Sorensen said in announcing the initiative last week: "Reading is our vehicle, and a library card is our passport. Reading can take us all over the world and introduce us to ideas and places we've never dreamed of."

Park that vehicle idea close by. We'll get behind the wheel in just a moment.

Like a TV or boom box turned too loud, the statistics blare the need for a literacy program to reach all corners of the state:

• One-third of South Carolina students reading below state standards in eighth grade (in 2002).

• The third-highest adult illiteracy rate in the United States.

• Illiteracy rates higher than 40 percent in five counties — Allendale, McCormick, Williamsburg, Clarendon and Lee.

If we do not reach today's children, the problem among tomorrow's adults will only worsen. It's impossible to overstate the importance of a literate population. Any effort to boost the state's economic growth hinges on an educated work force. In simplest terms, young people who cannot read at an adequate level are doomed to enter the work force looking for subsistence jobs, if they can find jobs at all. And the state will face the dilemma of either importing better-trained workers or continuing to export jobs.

What do we do about it? Our initiative is about as simple as ABC.

• A: The Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy. In an academic position, named for USC's former "storyteller-in-residence" and a pioneer in advancing children's literature, the chair holder will conduct research and lead teaching to determine the most effective ways of overcoming illiteracy. The General Assembly this year appropriated half of the $3 million needed to fully endow this chair in the School of Library and Information Science. It will be the first at USC and one of only a handful in the country honoring an African-American woman.

• B: The South Carolina Center for Children's Books and Literacy. In collaboration with the State Library, the center will develop the best practices that can be used to stimulate reading. A satellite center is being developed at the Gateway/Child Development and Research Center at USC to serve as our literacy laboratory where our faculty and graduate students work with the center's children and parents.

• C: Outreach and Training. The delivery system for getting programs to local libraries and communities, especially in underserved areas of the state.

The center and outreach components account for the other $3 million that we are seeking to fund the initiative.Bierbauer

Now, time to get back in that vehicle to make the deliveries. We call it the "Readmobile." It's still on the drawing boards, but library school director Dan Barron likes to describe it as "a tripped-out RV that can park at the town's Wal-Mart or Target and invite children and their families to explore the joys of reading."

Dr. Barron's retirement dream is to drive the Readmobile from town to town. One summer when I was in college, I drove an ice cream truck and saw the buzz that brings to a neighborhood. The Readmobile would be more nourishing.

This is not competition for libraries, many of which have their own bookmobiles. They are our collaborators. The initiative is designed to complement existing literacy programs and work in tandem with them. Our partners include organizations such as First Steps, PAIRS — Parents and Adults Inspiring Reading Success — the state's Education Oversight Committee, the USC College of Education, child care providers such as Gateway/USC and Sunshine House. The more of us involved, the better our chance of success.

And that's where you come in. You can read to your children and grandchildren, as I do. You can volunteer in schools and libraries, helping nurture the notion that reading can be as much fun as TV or video games. You can get on board with us.

Corporations, foundations, community groups and individuals can help fuel Children, Libraries and Literacy. We envision having all parts of the initiative in place by 2008. But we're not waiting to put it in gear, and we're not going to be intimidated by today's gas prices. The price of inaction is too high to pay.


The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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