Maria Scruggs realizes that addressing the many issues under the racial equity umbrella can be a daunting task, which is why the Phyllis Wheatley Rise to Read Campaign starts at the foundation – children who struggle to read.
Scruggs, the former president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg chapter, founded the program in partnership with the organization in 2018 as a means to close the literacy gap between Black and white children. Scruggs said reports show that between 2015 and 2021, just 23 to 27% of Black students were reading at grade level.
Scruggs said economic opportunity begins at the lowest level of a person’s life, and addressing the educational disparity in children will also help solve several other socioeconomic issues plaguing the city.
“We have two economists that have said if we’re able to ensure African American children can read, we are almost guaranteeing that child will have a greater opportunity to earn a living,” said Scruggs. “That’s how we close the economic equity gap, that’s how we close the ability to have access to affordable housing, that’s how we begin to improve health outcomes.”
The campaign draws its aspirations to see Black children exceed expectations from its namesake. Phyllis Wheatley was born a slave and taught herself to read with the help of her enslavers. She published her first poem at 12, and in 1775 she wrote a poem for George Washington. Washington praised her work, and in 1776, the two met.
Wheatley became the first Black woman and the first enslaved person to publish a book in the American Colonies.
“If a slave could teach herself how to read in the 18th century with the help of her slave masters,” began Scruggs. “How is it that we get to the 21st century, with all of the resources and technology and advancements that we have, and the issue is still so pervasive?”
Scruggs wants to shed more light on the pervasive problem and expand the program, but she needs the entire community’s help.
“Phyllis Wheatley cannot be successful on its own,” said Scruggs. “Its success hinges on multiple layers of partnerships and roles of community partners that realize they have a stake in this.”
The campaign emphasizes enabling parents to actively participate in their child’s education through family navigators. The family navigator’s role is to serve as a liaison between students’ families and the three schools currently piloting the program.
Scruggs said beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, Campbell Park Elementary, John Hopkins Middle School and Gibbs High School will implement the campaign’s family navigators.
“The idea is to begin to coordinate the assessments for the children while they’re in school,” said Scruggs. “Then, once the children are in the community, linking them up with the appropriate partners that are best suited to help build their literacy skills, as well as linking them to the community literacy activities that we are planning.”
Scruggs said the Phyllis Wheatley campaign is trying to place the African American community’s focus on the importance of education and literacy. She explained there is a lot of talk about closing the achievement gaps, but most parents do not fully understand the broad and complex strategies involved. She added that it is often hard for parents to navigate participation in public schools, and many become intimidated by the process.
“As a result, they may not be one of their child’s best advocates, just because of the fact that it’s a huge system,” said Scruggs. “What Phyllis Wheatley wants to do is what African people culturally do instinctively – become a supporter of the families and help the families navigate their role in their child’s education.”
Scruggs relayed that in 2018 after the NAACP realized only about 25% of Black students read at grade level, the organization decided to research the number of public dollars spent on addressing literacy in the county. Scruggs said they filed a public records request, and between the Pinellas County government, Pinellas County Schools (PCS) and the Juvenile Welfare Board, that number was $43 million.
Scruggs said the campaign’s relationship with PCS ebbs and flows. She said there are very high moments when it seems like everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction, and then there are roadblocks, such as whether mental health assessments can occur on-site.
“This is why communication is so important,” said Scruggs. “It’s not lost on anybody that there may be some trepidation with certain people in the district about Phyllis Wheatley.”
Scruggs added that a school’s principal understanding the coordination, logistics and commitment needed to make the program successful, is critical. She said the campaign’s organizers are working hard to build relationships with area schools, but building relationships in the community is equally important.
“We took our eyes off the prize,” said Scruggs. “We will take full responsibility, but this time, we are going to actively do something about it.”
Scruggs said PCS could not close the gap alone, and the missing element was the African American community. She added that many parents experience trauma, poverty, housing and health issues, and many times the best parents can do is just wake their children up and get them ready for school.
Scruggs explained that the African American community has veered away from its communal roots, and the focus needs to return to the collective rather than the individual.
“That’s why much of our community suffers,” said Scruggs. “Because we’ve gotten away from caring about each other and working together to achieve the greater good.
“And Phyllis Wheatley represents all of that.”
The NAACP is not affiliated with the Phyllis Wheatley Campaign.