Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Every year the National Civic League sponsors the All-America City Award. This year, the league, in partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, will honor communities working to improve early reading levels. Three Massachusetts cities – Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester – are among 32 finalists for the 2012 award.

More than 120 communities and regions submitted applications with detailed plans for improving early literacy. In Massachusetts, Boston and Holyoke also submitted plans. Finalists were selected through a peer review process consisting of more than 1,000 reviewers from participating communities

In related news, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is recognizing Boston and Springfield, along with 23 other cities and counties around the country, as Community Solutions PaceSetters “for their work addressing the challenges that keep low-income children from mastering reading by the end of third grade,” according to a news release. Boston is being recognized for its summer learning program. Springfield is being honored for its leadership and for efforts to improve student attendance through such initiatives as a “walking school bus,” organized walks to school.

Whether or not communities win an All-America City Award at a national conference in Denver in June 30-July 2, the process of applying indicates a commitment to helping children achieve a critical academic benchmark that strongly predicts their chances of success in school and beyond. Three-quarters of children who struggle with reading in third grade, research indicates, will continue to struggle in school, substantially reducing their chances of graduating from high school, pursuing further education and contributing to an increasingly sophisticated economy.

Springfield’s plan was submitted by Read! – a coalition that includes the city’s public schools, early education providers, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and business leaders. Read! has set a goal of having 80% of Springfield’s third graders reading proficiently by 2016. In 2011, 40% of Springfield third graders scored proficient or above in reading on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). “Our work on improving early literacy in Springfield began with the premise that ‘to become a successful reader by fourth grade, every Springfield child needs support from family, school and community,” Read! project manager Sally Fuller said in a news release.

Worcester’s plan comes from a community coalition that includes the Worcester Education Collaborative, the city’s public schools, Edward Street Child Services, the Latino Education Institute, Worcester! The City that Reads, Charter Communications, and the Telegram & Gazette. “Ensuring a child has mastered reading by third grade will guarantee a bright future filled with opportunities near and far,” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said in a news release from the Worcester Education Collaborative. In Worcester, 39% of third graders scored proficient or above in reading on the 2011 MCAS test.

Pittsfield’s plan is the work of the Pittsfield Promise, a coalition of 37 community leaders, led by Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Priorities. It has set a goal of having at least 90% of Pittsfield third graders reading at grade level by 2020. In Pittsfield, 60% of third graders scored proficient or above in reading on the 2011 MCAS, mirroring the statewide average. However, performance in the city’s eight elementary schools runs the gamut from 25% to 84% of third graders scoring proficient or above in reading.

“I am pleased that Pittsfield is a finalist, but the real prize here lies in building a strong, committed coalition focused on achieving better outcomes for all of our children,” Mayor Dan Bianci said in a news release. “This is a broad coalition already, and I urge others to join in the work.”

All applicants for the award become charter members of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Community Network, which gives them access to a clearinghouse of best practices, peer-learning opportunities, a foundation registry, an online help desk, and meetings with national policymakers and experts.

“We’re very excited to be part of the Campaign,” Gloria Rubio-Cortes, president of the Nativonal Civic League, said in a news release that lists all 32 finalists. “The application process was intended to elicit the best ideas, develop partnerships, and discover program efficiencies to put children on a track to graduation and success. We believe the communities who have joined the network and developed these plans are all winners.”