By Brianna Keilar, CNN White House Correspondent
Washington, D.C (CNN) – Schools face a staggering literacy problem here in the nation’s capital and lawmakers and congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle are trying to do something about it.
Every week, just four blocks from the Capitol, many of them read to students at Brent Elementary School.
They’re part of the “Power Lunch” program put on by Everybody Wins ! DC, a nonprofit literacy group serving 38 Title I schools in the nation’s capital, where many students live at or near the poverty line.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and his Chief of Staff Brian Ahlberg mentor a first- grader named John.
“It’s something I look forward to,” says Harkin. “They say the kids get a lot of it but I think we get a lot out of it, too.”
At the next table in the school library, Summer Mersinger, a top aide to Sen. John Thune (R-SD), reads to another child.
“It builds confidence. It gives them a sense of accomplishment,” Mersinger says, adding, “It’s amazing to me, she’s giving up her recess right now to sit here and read books with me.”
The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) participated in the program for 14 years. His widow Vicki filled his seat after he passed away in 2009. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood (R-Illinois) read for years as a member of the House of Representatives. Karen Duncan, the wife of Education Sec. Arne Duncan, now serves as a mentor.
It’s important work when you consider the achievement gap that exists even before kids enter school. While middle income students in the United States typically enter first grade with 1,000 to 1,700 hours of one-on-one reading, low-income students go in with just 25, according to a widely-cited report commissioned by the Packard and MacArthur Foundations.
Here in the nation’s capital schools are struggling to close that gap.
“Sadly, in the District of Columbia, less than half of the public high school students scored proficient in reading,” Mary Salander, co-founder of Everybody Wins ! DC, explains. “Twenty percent of adults have very few literacy skills.”