Inside Our Schools

Mar 14, 2012 10:18 PM

Region Mobilizes To Ensure 3rd-graders Read Well

NEWPORT (AP) - More than 70 organizations in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are teaming up on a national effort to improve third-grade reading levels.

The eight-year initiative includes seven counties and 19 school districts. It's one of the broadest such efforts ever undertaken, organizers said.

Its goal is to have 100 percent of children in this region reading successfully by the end of third grade by 2020.

The groups are taking on this issue because third-grade reading is a problem here, they say. And failing to address it has huge consequences.

Locally, third-grade reading rates have gone up by about 2.5 percent a year for the past five years.

But last school year, 29 percent of Cincinnati Public Schools students and 36 percent of Newport Independent Schools students were not proficient in reading by fourth grade. For Covington Independent Schools that number rose to 50 percent, according to state statistics.

Students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to a 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The worst readers are nearly six times more likely to drop out. Poverty compounds the problem.

In Cincinnati Public schools, only 64.7 percent of low-income students are proficient in third-grade reading compared to 86.3 percent of all other students.

"We all believe that kindergarten readiness and third grade reading are the single most important factors to getting a child to graduate from high school," said Robert Reifsnyder, president and CEO of United Way. The United Way has been focusing on those two issues for over a year.

Third grade is a critical milestone. Studies show that up through the end of third grade, kids are learning to read. After third grade they're expected to read to learn. If they can't read well, they start falling behind.

"We really feel that it's absolutely critical to build community will around the importance of getting kids prepared for kindergarten and getting them to know how critical reading is and build reading skills," he said. "Those skills stay with you for the rest of your life. And if you don't have them early, you get behind early."

Campaign for third grade reading

The regional effort is spearheaded by the Strive Partnership, which works with Cincinnati, Covington and Newport school districts, and the Northern Kentucky Education Council which focuses on six Kentucky counties.

The effort, dubbed the Campaign for Early Grade-Level Reading, is part of a national focus on third-grade reading. It grew in response to the Casey Foundation report. More than 150 organizations nationwide are participating.

The groups will each submit multi-year plans to improve third-grade reading today for a national competition called the All American City Award. Winning could net organizational and financial support. Only 10 of the 150 applicants will win. The plan by the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky coalition is one of the most far-reaching in terms of number of groups involved and kids impacted.

The coalition says it will pursue the plan with or without national help because it is so important to improving graduation rates and student success. "With few exceptions, kids that are reading successfully by the end of the third grade - with that success carried through the fourth grade - will in fact graduate from high school and do very well, whether they immediately enter a career or go on to pursue some form of college," said Greg Landsman, executive director of the Strive Partnership.

He said the grade-level reading campaign "will create perhaps the most robust talent pipeline in the country, unlocking the limitless potential of each and every child in our region."

To meet the goal of 100 percent third-grade reading proficiency, the coalition will:

- target disadvantaged students and high-need schools

- work regionally in three areas: kindergarten readiness, attendance, and summer learning

- expand volunteer efforts such as tutoring

- create a stronger focus in schools and communities on reading and attendance

- align funding with programs that work.

The plan is in its early stages. Details on exactly how it will work, how much it will cost and how it will be funded are being finalized. The full plan will be rolled out this summer.

Organizers expect it will involve expanding programs that have a proven record of improving third-grade reading rates: Success by Six, a United Way program focusing on early childhood education and the Northern Kentucky Education Council's One-to-One reading tutoring program, which serves grades K-3.

Dacian Butler, 8, of Erlanger, is fast becoming a One-to-One's success story.

Dacian, a third-grade student at A.J. Lindeman Elementary in Erlanger has always struggled with reading. He started One-to-One tutoring in first grade to improve his reading, spelling and vocabulary skills.

On a recent Tuesday, he excitedly reached into his tutor Jennifer Beach's bag and pulled out a red felt sack in the shape of an apple. He dumped its contents, green lettered tiles, onto the table. He quickly scanned them to start finding word combinations.

"I always beat her," he said proudly as he explained how the word-building game, Scrabble Apple, works.

Beach, a Kenton County librarian, tutors him weekly. She said he's improved immensely during their three years together.

Reading rates at this 300-student school have increased from 78 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 87 percent in the 2010-11 school year.

Dacian chatted excitedly about his 15-point gain on his last reading test, and credits his teachers and tutor for helping him get better.

But the next few months will be crucial.

"In fourth grade that level of reading gets complicated. If you're not fluent, it gets to be a problem," said A.J. Lindeman principal Michael Shires.

To meet its goal of 100 percent proficiency, the coalition says it will raise third-grade reading rates 5 percent a year in Cincinnati and 2.5 percent a year in Northern Kentucky. It also will raise kindergarten readiness by 3 percent and decrease the absence rate by 5 percent.

To do this the group will do an in-depth analysis of reading rates, readiness rates, and absence rates at each school, broken down by income, race and gender. It will figure out which students need the most help and will match those children with the program that will help them.

The campaign will also review the many programs in town like Success by Six or Every Child Succeeds. It will figure out which programs are working best for which kids.

The coalition will track its work throughout the campaign to see whether it's meeting its goals.

. Kindergarten readiness: Currently, tests show only 57 percent of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky children are ready for kindergarten. The coalition's goal is to increase that to 85 percent by 2020. It will work to expand or better target programs in the region that are working, such as home visits to new moms or high quality early childhood education.

. School attendance: Schools in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have an overall 95 percent attendance rate. But the absence rate varies from school to school. Chronic absenteeism, missing more than 18 days of school in a year, is a problem, particularly at the low-income schools.

The coalition plans to reduce absence rates by 5 percent, which will close the gap between schools. It will focus on the kids with chronic absenteeism. It will analyze why those children are missing so much school, whether it's transportation issues or lack of clean clothes, so it can target resources.

. Summer learning: Studies show that children, particularly low-income children, forget much of what they learn over the summer because they aren't practicing it.

The coalition will look at what impact local summer programs have on third-grade reading. It will seek to expand or replicate programs that work. It will expand summer programs that offer kids at least six weeks, six hours a day of programming.

The strategy and funding

The coalition will set up a separate fund for the campaign, as funding would likely be needed to expand successful programs and run public awareness campaigns. Funding details, however, are not available. The coalition leaders say at least 16 local philanthropies have agreed to help. Those include the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, United Way, Procter & Gamble and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

The coalition will target disadvantaged students. Specifically it will target 12 low-performing schools in eight Northern Kentucky districts and the lowest-performing elementary schools in the Cincinnati district.

Organizers were not ready to name the schools. Most of the lowest-performing are in the Cincinnati, Newport and Covington school districts.

The coalition will launch television ads, community meetings, and forums to get parents and community members involved.

Volunteers will be part of strategy

Residents will be asked to tutor, mentor, help out with programs or volunteer in schools.

It will hold business roundtables to get financial, organizational, or political support.

Shires, the A.J. Lindeman principal, is thrilled about the campaign, not just because it will help kids like Dacian, and schools like his, where kids struggle with state tests, have a high poverty rate, and often move several times in their elementary school years.

He's excited because it will help his whole community.

"It's morally and ethically our responsibility in Northern Kentucky to take that on as an initiative because everyone who comes through our system becomes a citizen," said Shires. "If you help our school, you're helping everyone. It's everyone's duty to make sure they succeed."

___

Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer, http://www.nky.com

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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