Here's the problem: In Denver, 56 percent of public school fourth graders are not proficient in reading -- a measurement that experts say is closely linked to dropout rates, graduation rates and possibly even incarceration. It's an alarming trend that is much worse for minority and low-income students. And it's a problem that officials across the country hope to address via a new campaign launched this week in Denver.
This week, a conference at the Hyatt downtown drew education leaders and mayors from around the country, plus Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. The event saw the launch of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Communities Network -- an initiative focused specifically on third-grade reading. The effort is tied to the 2012 All-America City Awards of the National Civic League, which this year is seeking plans centered on improving early literacy.
Supporters say that this targeted approach for the pivotal third-grade year -- with 124 cities, counties and towns representing 34 states and 350 school districts joining in as part of the new campaign -- is an unprecedented effort at this scale, and one that, if successful, could help address a problem at the root of many social concerns.
"The realization that's happened nationally is the fact that by focusing on early literacy, we can close the achievement gap for children before it begins," says Lindsay Neil, director of children's affairs for Denver. "If we have a laser-like, relentless focus on this issue...[this could be] our opportunity...to actually solve some of our longer-term social challenges as a society."
The goal in Denver is to have at least 90 percent of local third graders reading at grade level consistently by 2020, says Neil.
Across the state, the statistics are also alarming, especially for minorities and low-income students.
Only 49 percent of fourth graders in Colorado are proficient at reading, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, says Reilly Pharo, vice president of education initiatives for the Colorado Children's Campaign. But 82 percent of black and Latino students, and 81 percent of low-income students, are not proficient in fourth grade reading. Across the country, Colorado has the second largest disparity in this category between low-income students and non-low-income students, Pharo says.
"There's hard data to support the fact that if we don't have kids reading by the time they're in the fourth grade, we're putting them in a place where it's very difficult to succeed moving forward," she says. "It's such a root cause to so many issues going forward."
Pharo acknowledges that the 90 percent literacy goal is quite ambitious. "Those are the right goals to be setting, but I think we need to be mindful of how we get there.... Literacy isn't a single issue," she says, pointing out that success in this area can be measured in many different ways.
"By the end of third grade, you're nine. That's halfway between birth and eighteen," campaign spokeswoman Phyllis Jordan said at the aforementioned conference. "Let's put all our resources towards getting there. It's not just education. It's things like health.... It's parenting. It's all these things that start at birth."
Jordan explained that the campaign hopes to go beyond in-classroom improvements by trying to get communities involved in the process -- reaching out to parents, working on childcare, focusing on preschool access, looking at testing for learning abilities, etc. The network is also aiming its efforts at decreasing truancy and increasing summer learning -- both important factors in the success of students at this young age.
"There's not a question in my mind that what you are doing is going to be some of the most cost-effective investments we're gonna be able to make," Hickenlooper said at the conference. "I'm not sure I can think of anything that would have greater ramifications and more positive consequences."
In Denver, Neil says she is interested in a wide range of efforts to try and reach the goal of improved literacy, including increased access to books, a public education campaign on the importance of early literacy, and partnerships with various stakeholders such as libraries, recreational centers, and childcare services.
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Jordan added, "This is...collective impact, where you line up all your agencies and all your nonprofits and all your governments for the same goal, and that's what we're doing here."
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