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“Our bottom line is a sense of urgency and we know that you all feel it,” Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island KIDS Count, said last week at the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s (CGLR) New England Regional meeting. “The sense of urgency is greater than ever.”

The problem: too many children cannot read proficiently.

As CGLR says on its website, the country faces a challenge: “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Yet every year, more than 80 percent of low-income children miss this crucial milestone.”

The good news: “We’re starting to see communities produce results,” Ron Fairchild, a senior consultant at CGLR, said at the meeting.

Indeed, the issue of early reading proficiency is compelling more and more communities to join the effort – 232 local communities are now members of CGLR’s national network, up from an initial cohort of 124 when the campaign launched in 2011.

Held at Worcester Technical High School, the meeting was an opportunity for 70 participants from four states to share the effective work that’s being done around the country to boost children’s reading skills.

These efforts build on CGLR’s call for communities to:

• close the school-readiness gap

• address chronic absences, and

• stop summer learning loss

The core strategies for accomplishing these goals are:

• promoting children’s health so they can learn

• increasing parent engagement, and

• engaging in state-level outreach to policymakers, communities, educators, and families

“There isn’t a silver bullet program,” Carter Friend, senior program associate from the John T. Gorman Foundation, told the audience. What does work, as the conference’s speakers explained, are a range of flexibly designed programs that unite community partners to meet local needs.


Reading Programs in Three Communities 

Representatives from three communities shared the work they’ve done that has made a difference. They all touched on a common theme: moving from program-level results to population-level results.

Roanoke, Virginia

Pointing to a “diversity of poverty,” Sheila Umberger, Roanoke Public Libraries’ director of libraries, and her colleague Amber Lowery, the libraries’ manager of youth services, said that children in their community rarely leave the city limits. These children don’t go to the beach or to visit grandma’s farm or on family vacations — all events that could help their promote language and literacy skills as well as their knowledge of the larger world.

So the library and the city have stepped in to broaden children’s horizons. In 2012, Roanoke submitted a plan – “Star City Reads” — that won an All-America City Award from CGLR and the National Civic League for its proposal to “ensure that more Roanoke children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.”

Behind the plan were diverse partners: the Roanoke City Public Schools and the libraries as well as city government, United Way of Roanoke Valley, Total Action Against Poverty, Smart Beginnings of Greater Roanoke, Virginia Tech, Blue Ridge Literacy and the City Manager’s Office.

Today, Star City Reads is a multifaceted program with even more community partners, including businesses, nonprofits, and individuals.

Among Star City’s efforts is a summer learning program called RCPS+. There’s also the Books on Buses program that puts children’s books on city buses for parents and children to read. And in an effort to promote literacy from birth, the library published “Roanoke Baby,” a board book that’s distributed to every child born in the city.


Kansas City, Missouri

Some years back, financial literacy was what Mike English wanted to discuss with Kansas City Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James. But by the time English left the meeting, Mayor James had talked him into focusing on children’s literacy.

In 2011, Mayor James founded “Turn the Page KC,” the city’s campaign for grade level reading by third grade, and English became the organization’s executive director.

Turn the page started a volunteer program that was “wonderful,” English said, but didn’t change reading scores. English discovered a better program that had proven results, the Minnesota Reading Corps, and used it as a model to launch the Missouri Reading Corps in 12 Kansas City schools. Tutors work full time in schools where children have the lowest reading level.

Turning the Page KC also has a summer tutoring program that’s largely staffed by college students. And some 650 volunteers do one-on-one reading with children in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade.

And while school absenteeism has been tough to address, English says that his organization’s school attendance work group found that many children miss school because they move to new homes and don’t get enrolled in their new schools for days or weeks at a time. Part of the problem? Schools need proof of residency, typically a utility bill that doesn’t come right away. To speed up enrollments, Turn the Page is working with AT&T, Kansas City Power & Light, and others to create a portal that schools can use to confirm residency.

Among the city’s current struggles, English said, is that it doesn’t have universal preschool, and less than half of the city’s children attend an accredited preschool. And, in 2012, Missouri’s Legislature passed a law that bans quality rating systems that could be used to assess preschools.

“We have to reverse that.”


New Britain, Connecticut

Nancy Sarra and Joe Vaverchak gave a lively presentation on chronic absenteeism and preventing summer learning loss in New Britain, Conn.

Sarra is the director of teaching and learning for the Consolidated School District of New Britain. And Vaverchak is the attendance supervisor of the New Britain Public Schools.

Chronic absenteeism has taken a toll in New Britain. As the New York Times reported last year:

“Vaverchak discovered the problem in his district more than three years ago, when he sifted through 2011-2012 attendance data to investigate why his school system had among the lowest third grade reading scores in the state. He was startled to find that nearly one-third of kindergartners and a quarter of first graders were missing at least 10 percent of the school year. The district hired outreach workers to convey to parents the importance of attendance and to connect families with needed social services.”

New Britain also worked with the nonprofit organization Attendance Works. The organization’s website notes:

“In spring 2012, the Attendance Works team, which was brought in by the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, conducted a half-day workshop about chronic absence for New Britain’s elementary and middle school principals, as well as selected school staff.”

Since then chronic absenteeism in kindergarten has fallen from 30 percent to 13 percent, and the first grade rate dropped from 25 percent to 9 percent. (Although last year’s snow-heavy winter caused slight increases in these rates.)

Building a culture and holding people accountable is essential, Vaverchak said during the regional meeting, adding that change has to start at the top with school superintendents. Vaverchak also said that schools should have attendance teams that meet weekly to review absences. Schools may say they don’t have the resources, but the team could be as small as two people as long as they work consistently.

“Health is a huge issued out there,” Vaverchak said, noting that one attendance team member could be the school nurse who can keep abreast of the physical and mental health challenges that children face.

New Britain’s summer learning program has also helped with absenteeism. It started as a pilot program with 300 children and has grown to more than 650, Sarra said at the conference. It’s a full-day program that runs in August and provides, breakfast, lunch, and snacks. In the morning children focus on literacy and foundational skills. In the afternoon there are enrichment opportunities. And summer program students are the first to be invited to the city’s afterschool program.

One encouraging result: New Britain has seen chronic absenteeism drop by 11 percentage points among the summer students.


Working Sessions and Next Steps 

After lunch, meeting attendees engaged in small-group, facilitated conversations on a range of topics including:

• using data to set targets and measure progress

• moving from program-level results to population-level results

• improving access to summer learning opportunities

• increasing parent engagement

• improving children’s health and development

• making state policy changes that support grade level reading

• funding grade level initiatives, and

• reducing chronic absenteeism

To close the conference, CGLR’s Ron Fairchild and Carolyn Lyons (former president and CEO of Strategies for Children, and now CGLR’s director of strategic initiatives) provided an update.

“We’ve put the issue of third grade reading on the map,” Fairchild said.

The progress being made in communities means that CGLR is well on its way to achieving the goal that, “By 2020, a dozen states or more will increase by at least 100 percent the number of children from low-income families reading proficiently by the end of third grade.”

Lyons discussed asthma, dental care and other health challenges that must be addressed during the school year and during the summer to help children succeed.

“Building on what we learned together,” Lyons said, CGLR will launch More Hopeful Futures in 2017, the next phase of CGLR’s 10-year effort to boost third grade reading outcomes. Lyons expects that 75 communities from 15 states will participate, including Springfield, Mass.

And warming the hearts of sports fans, Lyons talked about the Re(a)d Zone, “A signature early literacy initiative of 50 Fund, the legacy fund of the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee.” The goal of this 14-month initiative is to “reach 50,000 low-income Bay Area kids and engage 50,000 Bay Area ‘literacy champions’ as volunteer tutors, book donors and early literacy advocates.”

National efforts and national Super Bowl attention can be used to leverage more support and, ultimately, help more children, Lyons said.

From coast to coast, communities are making exciting progress that promises to nurture a generation of strong readers who are prepared for lifelong success.


Slide show photos: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children