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Alachua County strives to improve youth literacy rates

Inside the Fresh Laundry and Café, where laundry takes place on the left side and story time on the right. (Bradley Shimel/WUFT News)
Inside the Fresh Laundry and Café, where laundry takes place on the left side and story time on the right. (Bradley Shimel/WUFT News)

When it comes to youth literacy rates in Alachua County, the overall numbers appear promising.

According to, 56% of elementary students tested at or above the proficient level for reading, a number thatranks high up on the list of counties in Florida.

However, there is a massive internal issue that is often overlooked; There is a significant reading gap between white and Black students in Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS).

According to the Florida Department of Education, there is a gap of 45% between English Language Arts Achievement of white and Black students in Alachua County, which are 70% and 25%, respectively. This gap is 17% larger than Florida’s total gap.

“Youth literacy is a big issue here in Alachua County,” Alachua County Library District Public Relations and Marketing Manager Brad McClenny says. “Below grade-level performance in reading can lead to a student dropping out of school, it increases the risk of incarceration, and it could lead to poverty later in life.”

In Alachua County, poverty is a big problem, as 20% of individuals live below the poverty line, which is 7% higher than Florida’s rate. Additionally, minority enrollment in public schools is 60%, and 40% of students are economically disadvantaged.

LaundryCares Foundation Early Childhood and Community Partnerships Director Liz McChesney thinks that Alachua County demonstrates exactly what is occurring nationwide: that children in high poverty and children of color are oftentimes systemically left behind in reading and literacy rates.

“We know that with COVID, learning loss was the hardest in communities experiencing high poverty and communities of color. Alachua’s rates are shocking, but actually not surprising and I think it should be on everyone's mind that this is important for us and vital for all of us to be working together as communities to close those gaps and help kids succeed.”

Despite such concerning statistics, Alachua County is implementing solutions to close the sizable reading gap between white and Black students.

On March 28, the City of Gainesville, Alachua County District Library, and LaundryCares foundation partnered to host Loads of Learning GNV; free events that transform laundromats into learning spaces.

Dozens of families attended Fresh Laundry and Café as volunteers read stories to children while families washed their clothes.

While this event has taken place in other cities, this is the first to take place in Gainesville.

Fresh Laundry and Cafe Owner Maritza Padgett says that the laundromat is the perfect place for economically disadvantaged people to find these programs.

“Most of those people don’t have washing machines or dryers,” Padgett says. “They have to spend time doing laundry and while they are doing that, their kids can be engaged and reading a book and having the volunteers do story time and filling that gap in order to have a better life in the future.”

The laundry mat also holds a weekly literacy program with free books being distributed and volunteers that read to children on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The program started late last year, and Padgett believes that it can improve the quality of education for kids.

“If kids from a young age learn to love to read books, they will get to do it in their home,” Padgett says. “If that love of reading books gets instilled in them, that can translate to success in school, and that success in school will catapult them into a better life. Education is the foundation for improving the quality of life.”

Padgett hopes that the laundromat could inspire other businesses to take on a more active role in their communities.

“I believe that if local businesses would look beyond just running their business and how they can serve the community, if a whole bunch of businesses got together and said, ‘what can we do to make a difference for our community?’, don't you think that would change things?” Padgett says. “And so, that’s what I want to be. I want to be that business that motivates other businesses to look outside the four walls that you’re in.”

In addition to this event, the Alachua County Library District is working to close the gap by implementing various programs within the community.

Libraries within the District host programs during the week such as story time, music and movement, and bookmaking.

In January, the City of Gainesville and Alachua County also made addressing the gap a priority by dedicating funds to Gainesville for All (GNV4ALL).

Alachua County commissioners voted to give a $350,000 grant to the organization matching the donation given to the group from the City of Gainesville. The money will go towards the construction of a Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center.

And when it comes to improvement in public schools, Alachua County’s newly elected school board has made addressing the gap between Black and white students their biggest goal.

The board plans to accomplish this by ensuring all children are phonetically solid, making.  reading a priority and providing engaging curriculums that address reading and behavioral issues.

Although it's still too early to tell whether the current solutions being implemented are carrying any effects, Liz McChaney has expressed pride in how the City of Gainesville, the Alachua County Library District and other organizations are coming together to address this problem.

“I think the City of Gainesville and Alachua County should be looked at as a national model for the way they are coming together across so many different systems to look at this issue,” McChaney says. “It’s really a system-level approach that I think other communities can learn from.”

Bradley is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing