Connecticut City Launches Local Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

Posted February 15, 2011, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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At the YWCA in New Britain, Con­necti­cut, a city of 70,000 near Hart­ford, young children’s play groups revolve around ear­ly lit­er­a­cy activ­i­ties that build lan­guage skills and intro­duce young chil­dren to con­cepts of print. Par­ents can take Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage, lit­er­a­cy, and GED class­es while their chil­dren are in care and then spend time shar­ing sto­ries with their infants, tod­dlers, and preschool­ers using bright­ly illus­trat­ed texts.

Such scenes have become more com­mon­place since the YWCA, with the help of oth­er local orga­ni­za­tions, opened a fam­i­ly lit­er­a­cy cen­ter and cre­at­ed train­ing pro­grams to help par­ents fos­ter lan­guage and read­ing skills in their children.

Boost­ing children’s lit­er­a­cy skills to ensure that they are read­ing at grade lev­el by the end of third grade is the goal of a unique part­ner­ship in New Britain between com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, pri­vate foun­da­tions, the school sys­tem, and state agen­cies to get more chil­dren on track to achieve read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy, and, ulti­mate­ly, school success.

By coor­di­nat­ing ser­vices and sup­ports for chil­dren from birth to age eight, the New Britain Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing is look­ing to boost the district’s third-grade read­ing scores, which are the low­est in the state. The local ini­tia­tive, which receives Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion sup­port, is a first step in a larg­er statewide effort and reflects the goals of a mul­ti-state cam­paign to ensure that more chil­dren are read­ing at grade lev­el by the end of third grade. It is also among the nation’s first to ral­ly an entire com­mu­ni­ty to take action ear­ly to ensure that all chil­dren become pro­fi­cient readers.

It is a momen­tous occa­sion that an entire com­mu­ni­ty would say we care so much about our kids that we will do what­ev­er it takes to get them to this goal that we know makes such a dif­fer­ence,” says Casey’s Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent Ralph Smith. Grade-lev­el read­ing by the end of third grade is a pow­er­ful proxy for what we need to do to put all chil­dren on the path to aca­d­e­m­ic success.”

For many chil­dren in the New Britain pub­lic schools, the road to aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess is a bumpy ride. By the time they get to third grade, less than one-fifth meet grade-lev­el goals on state read­ing tests, putting them at risk of repeat­ing a grade, act­ing out, and drop­ping out. As in many oth­er cities and towns across the state and the nation, eco­nom­ic hard­ship and fam­i­ly chal­lenges pre­vent many chil­dren from reach­ing the devel­op­men­tal mile­stones essen­tial to aca­d­e­m­ic achievement.

Even more-afflu­ent dis­tricts are look­ing to improve per­for­mance by ensur­ing that the youngest chil­dren are on the right path. The 144,000-student Mont­gomery Coun­ty, Mary­land, school sys­tem, a high-per­form­ing dis­trict that has a few dozen high-pover­ty schools, was able to gar­ner the polit­i­cal will and resources to boost achieve­ment for all stu­dents. The dis­trict has iden­ti­fied what stu­dents need to know, begin­ning in preschool, to become col­lege ready. It revamped its cur­ricu­lum and insti­tut­ed assess­ments, start­ing with the youngest stu­dents, to help iden­ti­fy those who are strug­gling and pro­vide inter­ven­tions to get them on track.

In New Britain, the Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing is an impor­tant step for this city, because we all know that edu­ca­tion is the key to a pros­per­ous future,” Jim Horan, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Con­necti­cut Asso­ci­a­tion of Human Ser­vices, said at a news con­fer­ence announc­ing the ini­tia­tive. The asso­ci­a­tion is the Casey Foundation’s Con­necti­cut KIDS COUNT grantee. We have a long way to go to close the read­ing gap and improve lit­er­a­cy for New Britain’s chil­dren,” Horan said.

A KIDS COUNT spe­cial report released by the Casey Foun­da­tion last May, Ear­ly Warn­ing! Why Read­ing by the End of Third Grade Mat­ters, says achiev­ing read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy by the end of third grade is crit­i­cal because that is when the empha­sis shifts from learn­ing to read to read­ing to learn.”

The report says the read­ing achieve­ment gap starts ear­ly for chil­dren who may not have access to the essen­tial con­di­tions for learn­ing: good health; hav­ing the sup­port of a strong fam­i­ly; feel­ing safe; and hav­ing pos­i­tive social inter­ac­tion skills, lan­guage skills, the moti­va­tion to learn, emo­tion­al and behav­ioral self-con­trol, and phys­i­cal skills and capacities.”

The report offers four rec­om­men­da­tions for improv­ing read­ing achievement:

  • Devel­op a coher­ent sys­tem of ear­ly care and edu­ca­tion from birth through third grade;
  • Pro­vide the tools and sup­ports to help par­ents, fam­i­lies, and care­givers in their role as a child’s first teacher, best coach, and most con­cerned advocate;
  • Ensure that all chil­dren have access to high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties that raise expec­ta­tions for stu­dent out­comes and close the achieve­ment gap; and
  • Devel­op and deploy prac­ti­cal and scal­able solu­tions to the con­trib­u­tors to under­achieve­ment, like chron­ic absence from school and sum­mer learn­ing loss.

The prin­ci­ples laid out in the KIDS COUNT report have been endorsed by the Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing, a con­cert­ed effort to mobi­lize phil­an­thropic lead­er­ship around mov­ing the nee­dle on third-grade read­ing over the next decade. The cam­paign includes near­ly 60 foun­da­tions in 27 states. Casey and a small group of fun­ders that are tak­ing the lead are work­ing to launch the cam­paign to:

  • Close the gap in read­ing achieve­ment that sep­a­rates many low-income stu­dents from their peers;
  • Raise the bar for read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy so that all stu­dents are assessed by world-class stan­dards; and
  • Ensure that all chil­dren, espe­cial­ly those from low income fam­i­lies, have an equi­table oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet those high standards.

More than two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders and 83 per­cent of those con­sid­ered low income could not demon­strate pro­fi­cien­cy in read­ing, accord­ing to the 2009 Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Progress.

In New Britain, the per­cent­ages of stu­dents in grades three through eight who meet grade-lev­el goals on state read­ing, writ­ing, and math tests are among the low­est in the state. The district’s high school grad­u­a­tion rate is 70 per­cent, com­pared to 92 per­cent statewide, and about one in four stu­dents fails to grad­u­ate with­in four years.

Mul­ti­ple fac­tors con­tribute to this cri­sis. Near­ly 72 per­cent of school-age chil­dren in the dis­trict qual­i­fy for free and reduced-price school meals. Three-fourths of the stu­dents are minor­i­ty, near­ly 16 per­cent are not flu­ent in Eng­lish, and 14 per­cent are iden­ti­fied for spe­cial edu­ca­tion services.

There isn’t one sim­ple cause for the prob­lem, or a sim­ple solu­tion. This is more than the schools and fam­i­lies can solve on their own,” says Mer­rill Gay, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the New Britain Ear­ly Child­hood Col­lab­o­ra­tive, which has launched an ini­tia­tive to increase the avail­abil­i­ty of high-qual­i­ty ear­ly care and edu­ca­tion pro­grams and train par­ents to be effec­tive advocates.

Over the next two years, the New Britain Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing will design and begin to imple­ment strate­gies — both inside the school sys­tem and through­out the com­mu­ni­ty — to raise third-grade read­ing achievement.

Casey and a group of Con­necti­cut fun­ders, includ­ing the William Cas­par Graustein Memo­r­i­al Fund in Ham­den, the Children’s Fund of Con­necti­cut, and the State Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion, have pledged $500,000 annu­al­ly to the effort over the next two years. The Con­necti­cut Cen­ter for School Change in Hart­ford will pro­vide tech­ni­cal sup­port to the dis­trict on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy development.

We believe that the active engage­ment of par­ents, in par­tic­u­lar those whose chil­dren will ben­e­fit the most, and the sup­port of the whole com­mu­ni­ty will bring about sus­tained change,” says David Née, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the William Cas­par Graustein Memo­r­i­al Fund.

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