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Reading Ahead

Child_readingWebExclusive: Office of Education addresses literacy gap in children

Forty-six percent of Californian third graders are reading above or at standardized proficiency levels, according to the 2010-2011 STAR testing results. That number is even lower—40 percent—in Santa Cruz County, but there has been a steady push to work towards raising those percentages.

Most recently, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, along with more than 150 other U.S. communities, has signaled their intent to apply for the 2012 All America City Awards, which is offered by the National Civic League. By doing so the county has agreed to work towards addressing child literacy by focusing on ways to improve three key areas: school readiness, school attendance, and summer learning.

Susan True is the executive director of First Five Santa Cruz County, an organization that was established in 1998 by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to act as the “steward” of Prop 10 (Tobacco Tax) and apply those funds to early childhood education.

“This year, for the first time, the award is focused on the importance of grade level reading, so communities will be chosen based on their development of plans that address the three key areas that we know impact children’s later reading success,” says True.

The shift in focus towards child literacy stems from two recent research papers published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The first is a 2010 special report done by the foundation’s data center, KIDS COUNT, titled ”Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” which reports that 76 percent of Californian fourth graders scored below proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). California ranked 46 out of the 50 states in the report. Massachusetts was ranked number one with 53 percent, and Louisiana ranked last with 82 percent.

The second report, “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” was published in 2011 by the foundation and shows that children who don’t read proficiently by the third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school. Children who lived in poverty and didn’t read proficiently by the third grade were 13 times more likely to drop out of high school.

“In Santa Cruz County, about 40 percent of our third graders read at proficiency or above,” says True. “That means 60 percent don’t, which is a pretty big deal. What we know is that studies have demonstrated that third grade reading scores are an indicator of later academic success. It’s linked to their likelihood of graduating from high school, later health outcomes, employment, incarcerations—I mean major, major threats of lifelong well-being can be tracked to if a child is on target in third grade.”

According to True, Santa Cruz County has a “higher than average” amount of children who are English language learners, and the state average is 38 percent. According to the California Department of Education, 96 percent of English Language Learners in grades K-three speak Spanish as their first language.

Mary Lou Goeke, executive director of United Way of Santa Cruz County, says that English Language Learners struggle because their opportunities aren’t always the same.

“If English is not your first language and you haven’t had the opportunity to go to a really quality preschool … and you’re not getting all those early sounds and opportunities to explore—singing, and talking, and sounding out words—well, by the time you get to kindergarten you’re already behind and missing it, and it just gets worse as it goes on,” says Goeke.

Goeke stresses that the learning starts at the child’s infancy—before that even—not just when they begin school proper.

“The idea is that you start all the way back, when mom first becomes pregnant, [and] you think ‘what can we do to have a healthy pregnancy,’ but then after the baby’s born, day one is day one of learning,” says Goeke.

Goeke believes that the entire community can come together and find ways to address this issue.

“What we want to do is get everybody in the community all excited about the process and say ‘How can a supermarket help kids learn to read?’ or even at a doctor’s office,” says Goeke. “It’s completely possible for us to succeed in this work, there are proven strategies that community members can embrace, that will help our kids succeed.”

Santa Cruz County, along with the rest of the 150 applicants, must turn in their plans by March, and according to True “what we’ll be doing right now is calling upon community leaders to help us develop the plan between now and then.” True also believes that the county has a good of a chance of attaining the award at that time.

“We have got a lot of work to do, but I think our community has proven that we can raise reading scores,” says True.  “We’ve already done that without a solid plan, I know we can do even more with one.”

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