This article is part of KUT's year-long series called Turning the Corner, which takes a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.
In low-income neighborhoods around Austin, 87 percent of children entering kindergarten are considered unprepared for school, which means many of them lack basic literacy skills. At Mendez Middle School in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, that struggle is obvious. Last year, less than half of Mendez sixth graders passed the state standardized test for reading.
Ivan Cervantes has been the school’s librarian for over a decade. In that time, he says he’s missed just three days of school.
“I love the kids. It’s the kind of job that you say, ‘I cannot wait to get to work.’ What challenges, what opportunities will I have for success and interaction with these wonderful children?" Cervantes says.
He began a program that allows students to play games, do homework and read in the library before school begins.
“I thought ‘These kids are just sitting out there. They’re going to be getting themselves in trouble. Why don’t I invite them up to the library?'" Cervantes says.
Now, more than one hundred students file in to the library every morning.
While Cervantes says he uses the library to promote reading, it's also a refuge for some kids to escape difficult situations at home and explore the world beyond Dove Springs. Nearly all the students at Mendez Middle School are economically disadvantaged.
Cervantes says he believes in the idea of bibliotherapy – where students can deal with their issues by interacting with characters in books.
"There’s a wide variety of backgrounds and, you know, a lot of these children don’t get out that much and don’t know much about great big world that exists out there," Cervantes says.
Maegan Ellis with the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas says when a parent isn’t able to read well – especially the mother – it increases the chance that their child won’t be able to read well either.
“People who struggle with literacy become very good at hiding it," Ellis says. "At some point it’s not worth admitting that they need the help and then creating more obstacle[s]. Maybe admitting to an employer they don’t know how to read or write or aren’t qualified for the job they’ve gotten."
The federal government provides states with money for adult literacy programs under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act(AEFLA), which the state is required to match at least 25 percent. While some states allocate close to 100 percent of federal funding, Texas only matches the required minimum. The legislature has allocated $11.9 million toward the AEFLA program, as well as an additional six million toward literacy programs at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Windham school district.
In Dove Springs, the literacy deficiencies created by poverty are made worse by the fact that 70 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. Ellis says if someone can’t read or write in their native language – such as Spanish – it makes it nearly impossible to teach them how to read and write in English.
At Mendez, Cervantes says students often turn to him for help on behalf of their parents.
“They’ll ask me for instructions on how to fill out an immigration form or how get to a certain location and I’ll say, 'Why?' and they say 'Well, my mom needs it.' And the children try to understand and help their parents and many times they realize they are out of their depth," Cervantes says.
Sometimes it’s the parents who are out of their depth. A few years ago, Cervantes says a mother asked him to take in her youngest son who she couldn't control. He agreed and while he says and his wife took the boy to museums and visited cities all over Texas, he couldn’t seem to make a difference.
“As an educator you see yourself as somehow practicing this art of convincing children, students to do things that don’t come naturally to them," Cervantes says. "To sit down, to read, study, learn and when I took this child in and could not do that I was really devastated and I tried everything."
The student eventually moved back in with his mother.
From here in the library, it’s hard to believe Cervantes isn’t making a difference for many students, however. Students crowd around his desk, checking out books for other students and making coffee. Throughout the day, students will pop in and out for a class or just to say hi.
The days end quieter than they begin, Cervantes says as he slowly closes down the library for another day and walks to his car.
“I’ve been parking underneath that tree for years," he says. "I get here. I park underneath the tree. I open the door, I go to the library at 7 a.m. and it’s very routine. The only variety is the children are changing all the time, the neighborhood is changing all the time and it’s very dynamic. It keeps me on my toes.”