Senator’s wife speaks out on child literacy

by Erin Ghere

Although her husband was the intended speaker, Sheila Wellstone lit up the Minnesota Literacy Summit on Monday with her charge to educators to improve children’s literacy.
Introduced by University professor Mary McEvoy as the working partner of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., Sheila Wellstone told several hundred people gathered at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome how all aspects of a child’s life affect learning. She also stressed the importance of children learning to read by the third grade.
Many teachers, principals, superintendents and other school officials attended the two-day literacy summit, sponsored by the College of Education and Human Development along with the University’s Center for Early Education and Development.
Sen. Paul Wellstone was scheduled to speak to the packed ballroom but had to return to Washington, D.C., for urgent congressional business, said Rosemary Miller, summit co-organizer.
Sheila Wellstone said many parts of a child’s life, including adult literacy, affect children’s literacy. Illiterate parents cannot read with their children, make out their report cards or help them with homework, Wellstone said.
Currently, 25 percent of low-income children are read to less than three times each week, she said. At least 20 percent live in poverty, she added.
Wellstone said she hopes to have all Minnesota children reading by the third grade. But this commitment must begin before birth, she said.
In his introductory comments, University President Mark Yudof said he is a self-proclaimed “maniac” for literacy because it is “extraordinarily important to our country.”
He said K-12 education must improve, and that colleges — including the University — have not done enough to educate teachers and other school officials in the past 25 to 30 years.
Prenatal and infant health programs should continue during pre-school years, Wellstone said. Family violence should not prevent children from wanting to learn or go to school.
“We must make the commitment that none of our children will fall behind,” she added.
Once children start school, educators must be aware of outside forces impeding a child’s ability to learn, Wellstone said.
For example, a child scared of domestic violence might sleep in school because it is the only place she feels safe. Poverty can also affect learning, Wellstone said.
“A hungry child cannot learn,” she said forcefully. “A hungry child starts out behind.”
On a similar note, Wellstone said policy-makers must continue to fund programs that improve children’s literacy, such as Headstart.
Yudof agreed that funding for such programs should increase.
“A dollar invested in literacy is a dollar well spent,” he said.
More than 70 studies show that just one year of Headstart dramatically improves a child’s literacy and learning, Wellstone said.
Educators and parents need to stoke the excitement children have for learning, Wellstone said.
“You don’t want to douse that spark,” she said.
In conclusion, Wellstone said educators and public policy-makers will reach their goal only when all adults and children in the country can read.
“Keep shaking up and waking up those who haven’t made the commitment yet,” she said to the educators.

tagline = Erin Ghere covers faculty and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217.