Fourth District Congressman Bruce Westerman said during a recent visit to Pine Bluff that “The people who write ugly things about Pine Bluff don’t see what I see. The economy is developing, and there are more announced. Not just jobs but good paying jobs. Pine Bluff has a bright future.”

Westerman, (R-Hot Springs), was speaking during the monthly Coffee with the Chiefs, sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration and held at the Pine Bluff Country Club on July 2. He was responding to remarks by Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, who preceded him during the event.

The mayor said she wanted to rebut those writers who say that Pine Bluff is the worst city in the country.

“Pine Bluff is rising,” Washington said. She then thanked Westerman for reaching out when a tornado struck a section of the city earlier this year and during the recent flooding along the Arkansas River.

“He has our back and supports us any way he can,” Washington said.

Turning to education, Westerman said the programs at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff are second to none, adding that he is working with the university in an effort to start an engineering degree program there.

UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander, who was in the audience, told Westerman later that the University of Arkansas System, of which UAPB is a part, had approved an engineering program that will begin in the fall.

“The ingredients are all here for a bright future,” Westerman said. “When I was growing up in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff was the place to go.”

The congressman spent much of his time talking about education, specifically the importance of reading at an early age.

Westerman said there is no disagreement that more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is needed, along with more career and technical education. He also acknowledged that Southeast Arkansas College in Pine Bluff has technical courses that are “second to none.”

He said one of this area’s biggest problems is that “the literacy rate is way too low.”

By not learning to read, or not reading well, Westerman said children miss the important first step in getting an education.

“We know how to do it,” he said. “Get into the schools and teach reading at an early age.”

Westerman attributed part of the problem to students who suffer from dyslexia, which he said affects 20 percent of the population. The father of four children, he said one of them has been diagnosed with dyslexia, and his wife, a special education teacher, was able to help recognize the problem and see that the child received help.

“A lot of kids aren’t getting the help they need,” Westerman said. “It doesn’t have social or racial boundaries, and it has nothing to do with IQ.”

Westerman serves as co-chairman of a congressional conference committee on Dyslexia and will be hosting a meeting of that committee in Washington next week.

He said there are remedies to the problem, and those remedies can help to improve the literacy rate, which would, in turn, help employers find and retain more qualified workers.

“It is an attainable goal,” Westerman said.