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40th Judicial District Court plans Literacy Clinic

EDGARD — Division B Judge Nghana Lewis announced stakeholders in criminal justice reform and K-12 education are joining forces to launch a Literacy Clinic with an ultimate goal of strengthening communities.

Approximately 16.5% of St. John the Baptist Parish residents age 18 and older do not have a high school diploma or equivalency. The average reading level of individuals entering the Louisiana Department of Corrections have a sixth to seventh grade reading level, and recidivism rates have been shown to be lower for those with some education or a high school equivalent diploma.

Lewis said the Literacy Clinic will service both children and adults in St. John the Baptist Parish. On the intervention side, adults with literacy deficits who enter the criminal justice system for non-violent offenses will be matched with services to help them build their reading skills and obtain their high school equivalency degree.

The Literacy Clinic will also provide direct services for students in grades K-2 at Fifth Ward Elementary School in Reserve. Data from kindergarten entry assessments, test scores and other evaluative tools will be used to match children with services to move students along the literacy spectrum to reach proficiency by the start of third grade. The Court’s Families in Need of Services (FINS) program will also support learning and troubleshoot challenges at home that could create barriers to student success.

“If a child is not reading proficiently on grade level by third grade, then the child cannot move from learning to read to reading to learn. The challenges that flow from a child not being able to read to learn are very well documented,” Lewis said. “That’s when you start to have poor academic performance, discipline issues and challenges, and bullying, whether the student is the target or the perpetrator. All measures of success, including social and emotional development, are adversely impacted if a child is not reading on grade level by third grade.”

Additionally, Lewis said data shows students who have challenges in school are the children who enter the juvenile justice system at disproportionately high rates.

The Literacy Clinic is the first of its kind in the State of Louisiana. By focusing on the restorative and rehabilitative functions of the Court, it will help repurpose the Court’s role as a community partner.

Working in tandem to accomplish this goal are the 40th Judicial District Court, the St. John Parish District Attorney’s Office, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, the 40th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, River Parishes Community College – Reserve campus, and St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools, through Fifth Ward Elementary.

The one-year pilot period will utilize funding appropriated by the Louisiana State Legislature. Lewis said the 40th Judicial District Court is pursuing additional grants to continue the program and eventually replicate it in other jurisdictions throughout the state of Louisiana.