A promise to city kindergartners [Commentary]

Baltimore's kindergartners and their families are the recipients of a new promise this school year: Their city will provide them with the resources they need to reach the single most important benchmark of their early-grade school careers, reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

This is the goal of the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading (www.gradelevelreadingbaltimore.org), a growing citywide coalition committed to doubling by 2020 the percentage of city public-school students reading at grade level by third grade. Similar campaigns have begun in recent years in more than 100 other communities nationally.

Why so many campaigns across the country? Because study after study shows that the ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is predictive of long-term educational and employment outcomes.

The end of third grade marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. There is a strong correlation between third-grade reading levels and high-school graduation. And the lack of a high-school degree translates to potentially higher levels of unemployment and even incarceration.

In any city struggling with too much poverty, greater educational achievement — based on improved early-grade reading skills — has to be a high priority.

It also is cost-effective. Investments in early-childhood and early-grade education can reduce costs on such later, bigger-ticket educational expenses as remedial programs, General Education Development (GED) certification programs for youth who have dropped out of high school, and public job-training programs.

Despite all this, as a city, state and nation, we're not doing enough.

Nationally, only 35 percent of America's fourth graders were deemed at or above proficient in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most comprehensive and respected nationally normed achievement test.

In Baltimore, the NAEP data is even more startling: Only 14 percent of fourth graders were found to be proficient or advanced readers.

Now, the Baltimore Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is aiming to re-spark citywide thinking and action on how to help more students learn to read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

Some initial steps:

•Working with city schools and agencies to offer quality, affordable pre-K options — especially in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty — and reaching out to parents to encourage them to enroll their children in these programs, so that more students enter kindergarten ready to learn.

•Providing a variety of safe, fun, convenient and educational out-of-school opportunities for students during the school year and summer, including the campaign's "READ 15" program over this past summer that encouraged children to read at least 15 minutes a day.

•Communicating to parents the need for their children to attend school on time every day. A recent study by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) found that students who missed two or more days in September were significantly more likely to be chronically absent over the entire school year. Not surprisingly, that study also connected chronic absenteeism to lower achievement.

•Giving parents understandable information they can use to track what their children should know grade by grade.

•Asking good questions about what is happening in our schools, and holding teachers and school leaders accountable for student achievement.

Reaching this campaign's goal will take more than just these steps, so they are but a start.

And certainly, reading proficiently by third grade is just one of many goals for the city schools as this school year begins, among them: implementing the Common Core curriculum, improving city high schools, focusing on college readiness, carrying out the 21st Century Building project and building a stronger pool of city teachers and school leaders.

But consider how much easier each these goals would be if this year's kindergartners, and those who follow, achieved success in their first four years of school. And that all begins with reading at grade level.

Kimberly Manns is program director of the Baltimore Campaign for Grade-Level Reading; her email is KimberlyM@ffee.org. Roger Schulman is CEO of the Fund for Educational Excellence; his email is RogerS@ffee.org.

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