Press Release | The Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation Unveils A Comprehensive Plan to Increase Literacy Rates

April 24, 2014

Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action

HOUSTON – The nation’s fourth largest city is in a social, economic, and security crisis due to a single systemic peril – low literacy levels.  Leading the effort to solve the crisis, the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation (BBHLF) and Deloitte Consulting, LLP, developed a comprehensive plan based on a significant body of research, local data and extensive community involvement.  The plan, titled Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action includes targeted strategies and recommended actions intended to mobilize the community toward increasing literacy rates of people of all ages across Houston.  The plan was unveiled today at a press briefing led by BBHLF Co-Chairs, Neil and Maria Bush; The Honorable Mayor Annise Parker, City of Houston; The Honorable Harris County Judge Ed Emmett; the Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Wendy Spencer; BBHLF President, Julie Baker Finck, Ph.D; and other community leaders.    

“It’s time that we focus on this critical challenge, ensuring that every man, woman, and child develops strong literacy skills necessary for life long individual, family, and community success,” stated BBHLF Chairman, Neil Bush. “The Blueprint for Community Action offers practical solutions towards reaching that goal,” he added.

Since September 2013, the BBHLF has taken on the important role of convening more than 100 community leaders to fully assess Houston’s literacy crisis and develop viable actions to reverse the disastrous impacts caused by low literacy in our society.

Literacy – the ability to read, write, speak clearly, and think critically – is an indisputably fundamental skill necessary for success in school, work, and life.  Yet one in five adults, roughly 330,000 Houstonians, are functionally illiterate, unable to manage daily activities and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level in any language.  National records report 43% of adults with the lowest level of literacy skills live in poverty, as compared to only 4% of adults with the highest level of literacy skills. More impactful is the intergenerational impact; a child’s literacy level is strongly correlated with a mother’s level of education and poverty. 

“We will not end the cycle of poverty until we end the cycle of low literacy,” affirms BBHLF President, Julie Baker Finck, Ph.D.

Arguably, the best weapon for ending the familial lifecycle of poverty is teaching a child to read.  Still, approximately 60% of Houston’s children lacked requisite reading-readiness skills upon entering kindergarten in fall 2013.

Down the school-grade continuum, the evidence mounts. Only 20% of Houston-area third graders performed at an advanced level on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) reading exam, indicating they were fully prepared for fourth grade.  Third grade is a critical milestone in a child’s education because this is when a child transitions from learning how to read to reading to learn, and those not on par have only a one in eight chance of ever catching up.  Furthermore, children who do not read proficiently by the end of the third grade are three to four times more likely to ultimately drop out of school.  Advancing to high school, 50% of Houston’s ninth graders failed to meet minimum expectations on the standard end-of-year reading and writing exams required for graduation.    

Solving Houston’s Literacy Crisis

“The enormity and complexity of Houston’s literacy crisis will be solved neither quickly nor simply.  Rather, it necessitates a comprehensive set of strategies, systems, policies, and universal public support as outlined in The Blueprint for Community Action,” explained Dr. Finck.  “The Blueprint’s purpose is to increase awareness of Houston’s prevalent literacy crisis, elevate literacy as a top priority, and mobilize the community into action.”

The Blueprint for Community Action offers practical, age-specific strategies, detailed recommended actions, and key measurement metrics with the objective to achieve six key goals: 

  1. Raise awareness of Houston’s literacy crisis.
  2. Ensure every child enters kindergarten ready to read.
  3. Ensure every child reads proficiently by the end of the third grade.
  4. Ensure every young adult graduates on-time with the literacy skills needed for the workforce or higher education.
  5. Ensure every functionally illiterate adult is able to integrate into the workforce and succeed in everyday life.
  6. Establish a sustainable system that supports and builds capacity for on-going literacy success.

Community Urged to Join “Houston’s Literacy Promise”

In addition to implementing practical, high-impact strategies that will increase Houston’s literacy rates and serve as a model for other cities, the Foundation urges the Houston community to sign the Houston’s Literacy Promise pledge, promising their support of the mission to end Houston’s literacy crisis.

“Low-literacy is the root cause of almost all social ills, including crime rates, dropout rates, joblessness, homelessness, social injustice, and health issue inequities,” stated Mayor Annise Parker.  “I hope all Houstonians will join the BBHLF’s movement to increase our city’s literacy rates, now.”

According to the Department of Justice, “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”  Specifically, 85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and more than 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.  Fiscally, an inmate in Houston costs taxpayers $21,390 annually, not including lost-opportunity contributions to the economy.  Furthermore, welfare recipients cite “low basic skills,” which include literacy, as the most common barrier in transitioning from welfare to work.

“Not only is literacy a basic skill for individual growth, but it is also a skill that benefits the entire community,” stated Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. 

Ultimately, The Blueprint’s success requires efforts of everyone in our community, using proven initiatives, public advocacy, and meaningful support for those organizations already working to improve literacy rates in Houston.

“Volunteers build stronger communities across America every day,” said Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “Through the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation and the Blueprint for Community Action, volunteers will make Houston a model city for the nation. Together, we will expand service opportunities and break the cycle of low literacy.”

Chairman, Neil Bush, encourages the community to mobilize into action, saying, “We call upon everyone in Houston to make the literacy promise – join us in bringing an end to Houston’s literacy crisis.”


About Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation

The Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, co-chaired by Neil and Maria Bush, was established as a charitable organization focused on improving the quality of life for Houston residents through the power of literacy. The Foundation advocates for literacy as a fundamental right of everyone and a foundational skill towards success in life. It is founded on the belief held by Barbara Bush, former First Lady, “If you help a person to read, then their opportunities in life will be endless.” In 2013, The Bush Family created the Houston-based foundation separate from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a national foundation, in response to the need to deepen the awareness of and intensify services and support for the nation’s fourth largest and most diverse city – Houston.