Using the Read! campaign in Springfield, MA,  as the springboard, Communities & Banking, the quarterly journal of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, examines the critical third grade reading benchmark in the cover story of its winter 2012 edition. We at Strategies for Children were pleased to be invited to submit the article — “Early Childhood Education: Springfield Tackles a Benchmark”  — and delighted that the Fed recognizes how vital the issue is to the area’s economic health and prosperity.

“The old industrial city of Springfield, Massachusetts, has a long history with the written word. Dr. Seuss, whose rhymes made learning to read fun, was born here,” the story begins. “This is the birthplace, too, of Merriam-Webster Inc., the famed dictionary company. Yet for many Springfield children, learning to read is a challenge. Sixty percent of the city’s third graders read below grade level, according to the 2011 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), thus missing a critical benchmark that strongly predicts later success.

“‘Where is the outrage?’ asks local philanthropist John Davis, who steered the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation to build on Springfield’s existing networks of collaboration and mobilize stakeholders to launch Read! The ambitious campaign aims to have 80 percent of Springfield’s third graders proficient in reading by 2016.”

With 85% of students in Springfield’s public schools eligible for free or reduced price lunches, the system serves a largely low-income population. Indeed, the third grade MCAS reading scores in Springfield mirror statewide results for children from low-income families. Overall, 39% of Massachusetts third graders scored below proficient on the 2011 reading MCAS. Among Bay State children from low-income families, 60% lag in reading.

Research indicates that 74% of children who struggle with reading in third grade will continue to struggle in school, substantially reducing their chances of graduating from high school. In addition, other research indicates that children who are behind in reading in third grade are four times less likely to finish high school. In Springfield, only 53% of students finish high school in four years.

As noted in earlier posts, Read! dovetails with the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading spearheaded by Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “More than half of low-income kids do not graduate from high school,” Smith tells Communities & Banking. “What is the inflection point? A research-based approach led us to grade-level reading at the end of third grade.”

Springfield’s Read! campaign focuses a number of innovative initiatives on the common goal of boosting third grade reading by paying attention to children’s language and literacy development, from birth to age 9. In addition to efforts to improve literacy instruction in the public schools, Read! includes Talk/Read/Succeed, a literacy and family engagement program for young children and families in two public housing developments; efforts of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County to improve the education and training of the early education workforce; home visiting; parent education; and media partnerships. The business community, as I reported recently, has raised $1 million  of the $1,5 million it expects to raise to support the Read! campaign.

“At a lot of meetings I go to in the community, public safety is the number one issue and then economic development,” Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Springfield’s Square One early-education and after-school programs, tells Communities & Banking. “Early education, which includes early literacy, is certainly not a silver bullet, but it’s a strategic point of intervention. We must start to redefine education…. Education takes place on a 24/7 basis, and everyone has an obligation to participate in the education of all citizens.”