Nation’s Illiteracy Woes Won’t Be Solved by Government Alone

By Maggie Kohn
Oct 8, 2019 10:35 AM ET

This article series is underwritten by JetBlue and went through our normal editorial review process.

According to recent research, more than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years or drop out, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research

Other studies confirm the widening literacy gap, which authors say will lead to the perpetuation of poverty and a resultant expanding unskilled workforce in the coming years. 

This challenge is too big for any one sector 

The U.S. Department of Education is scrambling to address the growing crisis, but it is just too big. Increasingly, businesses are realizing the immensity of the challenge in their communities and the potential impact it could have on their own sustainability. They also realize that their employees and customers are looking to them to do something. 

“There is an expectation today that companies will respond and help,” says Icema Gibbs, director of corporate social responsibility for JetBlue Airways and architect of the company’s award-winning Soar with Reading program. “It’s incumbent upon companies to help. Everyone has to get involved to move the needle on social change.” 

Through its Soar with Reading program, JetBlue has been tackling the issue of book availability in underserved communities since 2015. Using a creative approach, the program provides free children’s books through vending machines in a different city every summer.  

For selection in the program, a city must be one where JetBlue flies and where a book desert exists. To date, JetBlue has brought Soar with Reading to Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland, Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale and, this year, New York City.

Once a new city is selected, Gibbs’ corporate responsibility team works with local community leaders, educators and community organizations to identify neighborhoods that would benefit most from the program and high-traffic areas where kids and families visit often, such as community centers. 

Vending machines are set up from July through September and restocked every two weeks with new titles that feature a wide array of age-appropriate books that also reflect the distinct languages and cultures of the community.

“We work long and hard to ensure we select books that represent the neighborhoods we go into,” Gibbs explains. For example, when Soar with Reading took up residence in San Francisco, Gibbs and her team ensured there were books available in Mandarin. 

JetBlue’s vending machines include historical, biographical, and narrative books designed to attract young audiences and keep them reading. 

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