Ohio’s juvenile prisons focus on improving literacy this school year

CLEVELAND – The statistics are sobering.

According to the National Adult Literacy Assessment, two-thirds of students who cannot read well by the end of fourth grade will end up on welfare or in prison.

Eight to five percent of all juveniles facing incarceration or the justice system are functionally illiterate.

“The work we need to do really starts with literacy,” said Amy Ast, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

DYS operates three high schools at its three juvenile detention centers across the state — and this school year, Ast said they are making literacy a priority.

“When our children come to us, people often forget that they are non-traditional students,” she explained. “We know they come to us with learning disabilities, haven’t had good experiences at school, we know they have trauma.”

Ast said the average age of the young people they have in custody is second grade – but they read at a fifth grade level.

The initial goal is to increase their reading by one grade level or more.

To start, DYS is upgrading all media centers with new funding, using software called Mindplay that uses technology to boost literacy, creating book clubs and donating reading time each period.

Not just in English classes, but in career technology, social studies, and even math.

They are also bringing new “high interest” books to libraries.

“When you’re trying to get kids to read, you want them to have things that interest them,” Ast said.

Rob Fischer is Co-Director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development and Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

He said that with income disparities, food and housing problems and mental health issues, illiteracy has its roots in early childhood and spirals.

“When you think about what kids think of themselves, they’re going to start wondering if a college career is best for them,” Fisher said. “And as they disconnect from that, they might engage more in negative behaviors, delinquent behaviors and those have consequences that tend to snowball.”

Fischer said addressing literacy issues earlier in childhood is crucial.

“We know, through things like high-quality preschool education, free pre-K services, home visits and early intervention support, that families face a variety of challenges,” said Fisher.

Research shows that increasing literacy rates can reduce recidivism and improve public safety – a benefit, of course, for all of us.

As reported last year, state-run juvenile facilities in Ohio have graduated nearly 70 children with high school diplomas — a milestone they are proud of and hope to grow from.

“I don’t want them to be forgotten children,” Ast said. “They are coming back to our communities and they really need people to support them around them.”

Ensuring they have access to books is essential to improving a child’s literacy, but there are many in our community who don’t have a single book of their own.

That’s why the Give a Child a Book campaign is so important to News 5 and our parent company, EW Scripps.

Just $5 can provide a child with a book to help them build their own library at home. And money given in Northeast Ohio stays in Northeast Ohio.

You can find out more or make a donation at by clicking here.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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