Sally Fuller of Springfield’s Read! initiative and Ralph Smith of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at Boston event (Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children)

Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, got a first-hand look last week at the momentum building at the state and local levels to improve third grade reading proficiency in Massachusetts. Smith, in turn, added further to the momentum by recognizing the commonwealth with a State Pacesetter award and applauding the efforts unfolding in communities across Massachusetts.

Smith kicked off his tour with the Boston visit  that I reported on last week. Then he headed west to visit the other four cities — Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester — that applied for the National Civic League’s 2012 All-America City Award. This year, the league – in partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading — focused the award competition on community-wide efforts to improve reading proficiency.

Smith’s next stop was Worcester, where he delivered the keynote address at a community event held at the College of the Holy Cross. According to 2012 MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) results, 59% of third graders in Worcester scored below proficient in reading. (Statewide, 39% of third graders scored below proficient in reading; among children from low-income families, 60% scored below proficient.) In addition to Smith, Superintendent of Schools Melinda Boone,  Telegram & Gazette publisher Bruce Gaultney, and Jennifer Davis Cary, executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative, delivered remarks. The city was a finalist for the All-America City Award.

At an evening reception at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, located near the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, guests celebrated Springfield’s designation as an All-America City. Smith also presented Springfield leaders with a Community Pacesetter award for the city’s leadership in the national reading proficiency movement and for its efforts to improve student attendance. In Springfield, 60% of third graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2012 MCAS.

The recognition, Smith told WWLP-TV (Channel 22), honors Springfield’s “energy, enthusiasm and imagination and leadership.” Led by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, Springfield launched its Read! campaign in 2009, making the birthplace of Dr. Seuss a pioneer in what has become a national movement to improve children’s proficiency by the end of third grade. The Davis Foundation and Springfield leaders “have really shown the way for the rest of us,” Smith told Channel 22.

The broad cross-section of leaders attending the reception included Superintendent of Schools  Daniel Warwick, as well as members of the Springfield School Committee, a representative of Mayor Domenic Sarno, leaders of the Read! and Talk/Read/Succeed initiatives, and Stephen Davis of the Davis Foundation and other representatives of the city’s Funder Collaborative for Reading Success. Carolyn Lyons, president and CEO of Strategies for Children, applauded Springfield’s leadership both locally and nationally.

Smith’s final day in Massachusetts began in Holyoke with the “Reading is Power: Leer es Poder” early literacy event at Holyoke Community College. In addition to Smith, speakers included Mayor Alex Morse and Senator Michael Knapik. Andrew Melendez, the city’s recently hired early literacy coordinator, also delivered remarks. “Children are coming into school thousands of words behind; we’re going to make sure that that achievement gap is diminished, and really make sure that the community understands that this affects dropout rates and unemployment,” Melendez told WWLP-TV.

Mayor Morse, who was elected in 2011, has made reading proficiency a major goal and houses the newly created literacy coordinator position in his office. The mayor’s leadership, SFC President Lyons noted in her remarks, is a critical ingredient of the city’s efforts to improve children’s literacy. In Holyoke, 80% of third graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2012 MCAS.

Smith’s visit to Massachusetts ended in Pittsfield with a celebration of that city’s receipt of an All-America City Award. Smith told a standing-room-only crowd at the Berkshire Museum that there is consensus across the country that the United States needs to produce high school graduates who are college- and career-ready. “But we can’t get there unless kids are reading at grade level by the end of third grade,” the Berkshire Eagle reports that Smith said.

Here, too, the event attracted a broad spectrum of leaders – including Mayor Daniel Bianchi, Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Interim Superintendent of Schools Gordon Noseworthy, Kris Hazzard, executive director of Berkshire United Way, and John Bissell, executive vice president of the Greylock Federal Credit Union and co-chair of the Pittsfield Promise, a coalition of 80 community leaders committed to improving early literacy. As Lyons noted in her remarks, all the right people were in the room to make a difference for children. In Pittsfield, 49% of third graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2012 MCAS.

In his remarks, Bissell said the Pittsfield Promise aims to “break down the walls and barriers of race and class,” according to the Berkshire Eagle. “They are lofty goals,” he said, “but no more than what our community deserves and are very attainable.”