In an era of polarization over how to fix the nation's problems, Dorothy Bush Koch believes there's a cause everyone can unite around: improving literacy.
The daughter of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, she is co-chair with her brother Jeb Bush of their mother's Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. She spoke Friday at the Sheraton Station Square to the Literacy Funders Network, a national gathering of foundations and agencies concerned with raising the reading, basic math and related life skills of adults and their young children.
Her foundation's focus is on programs that help parents learn together with their preschool children, so that they set an example and break a cycle of illiteracy.
In the United States, there are 25 million adults with no high school diploma and 90 million who can't read or do math well enough to hold a job, understand medical instructions or balance a checkbook. More than 1 million children drop out of school each year, she said.
At the same time, China and other countries are investing heavily in education to ensure their youth can compete globally.
"Illiteracy and low literacy are a national crisis," she said, adding that many employers say it's hard to find people literate enough for entry-level jobs.
"It's a problem that could eventually threaten our entire way of life," she said. "Without empowering whole families with the tools they need to succeed and excel ... we run the risk of being a second-rate nation."
Ms. Koch, 53, is a mother of four and lives in Bethesda, Md. Her mother, she said, is still going strong at age 87 in Maine, where she takes her dogs with her to read books to hospitalized children.
Over 23 years, the Bush Foundation has distributed $45 million in grants. It operates a center in Florida where adults improve literacy skills at 1.5 grade levels per year and preschoolers who arrive with the lowest school-preparedness levels head to kindergarten as ready to learn as the children of college graduates. The foundation is preparing to launch similar programs in 12 states.
As an example of what's possible, she cited a woman who is now director of the Family Literacy Academy in Tampa but who spent her childhood in a migrant family, picking strawberries.
They moved so often that she never stayed in any school long enough to learn much. When she was in seventh grade her father decided she knew enough to serve as the family translator, and ordered her to drop out and work. She soon ran away and had two children.
"When she was in her twenties she decided to give education another try," Ms. Koch said. She and her children went to the center, where she excelled enough to enroll in community college, then transfer and graduate from the University of South Florida.
"Now she is paying it forward, empowering others with the same second chance and inspiration she received," Ms. Koch said.
Ms. Koch called on funders to use their influence with legislators and policymakers to give priority to family literacy programs. She urged people to mentor first-, second- and third-graders, saying that 88 percent of third-graders who struggle to read eventually will drop out.
The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, which hosted the meeting, has two programs that use the dual-generation model. Both are for refugees "but we're interested in doing the same kind of program for American-born students," said Donald Block, the executive director. The Pittsburgh council has a waiting list of more than 200 people.
"People think it's hard to find students. It's not hard to find them at all," he said.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.