Today’s post comes from one of the winners of the Her.meneutics Summer Writing Contest, responding to the question, “What do you wish the local church knew?” Winning entries will appear on the site each Wednesday through Labor Day. –Kate

I spent my first year out of college teaching social studies in an urban Title I middle school. Meeting all 125 students that first day was overwhelming, but one stood out right away.

Deja was bright. She was a leader—confident, athletic, witty, and well-liked. She rarely completed her homework, but actively participated in class and always had the right answer. When it came time for our first test, I was shocked that Deja failed. She scored 20 percent, despite having won all the in-class review games the day before.

I met with Deja during my planning period to figure out what was going on. After going through the first few questions with her, it hit me: She could not read. I ended up administering the test orally on the spot, reading each question aloud to her. She didn’t get a single answer wrong.

Afterwards, I sat in my empty classroom and cried. Going into teaching, I knew that the opportunity gap plaguing high poverty schools like mine was fundamentally a literacy gap. Kids growing up in families on welfare hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers—and that’s just before age 3. Those who fail to read on grade level by third grade continue to lag behind in middle school and high school, and they’re less likely to graduate or make it to college. These kinds of statistics motivated me to teach in the first place. But after meeting Deja, I felt hopeless. What can a good, or even great, teacher do in a middle-school ...

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