Now a ‘pacesetter’ community, Santa Cruz County pushes forward with grade-level reading efforts
It always helps to have a light at the end of the tunnel.
For Santa Cruz County educators interested in addressing grade-level reading, that light is the All-America City award, an incentive from the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to increase the reading ability of third grade and below students. The campaign, a branch of the National Civic League, emphasizes cross-coordination between all sectors of the community to strengthen the resources available to low-income students.
A network of thousands of funders, nonprofits, state leaders and other communities across the nation comprise the campaign, which focuses on grade-level reading by the third grade. Reading proficiency at that cutoff has been identified as a strong predictor of later academic success, as it allows students “to shift from learning to read to reading to learn,” according to the campaign’s website,
The campaign emphasizes three springboards for grade-level reading proficiency: school readiness by kindergarten, attendance, and summer learning. Young students who fall short in any one of these three categories have been identified as at-risk for below grade-level reading.
Santa Cruz County was one of hundreds of communities nationwide to submit an application with an action plan for how to better reading levels for low-income children to the campaign earlier this year. Their plan includes an enrichment-focused parenting outreach program, a countywide reading proficiency by third grade campaign, and a community volunteer network with bilingual tutors for Spanish-speaking children. The All-America award was recently given to 14 of the applicant communities, two of which were from California.
Although Santa Cruz County did not win the award, it was recognized as a “pacesetter” community along with 26 other communities from across the country. According to the campaign, a pacesetter community has set an example for other communities in one or more of the three target criterion.
“The distinction acknowledges the work of early educators, families, the libraries and First 5 to help children enter kindergarten on target for later reading success,” County Supervisor and First 5 Santa Cruz County Commissioner Mark Stone said in a July 2 press release.
Mary Lou Goeke is the executive director of United Way of Santa Cruz County, which teamed up with First 5 Santa Cruz, the County Board of Supervisors, and several local school district superintendents to address the problem locally.
“It takes a village, as they say,” Goeke says. “The approach is that we are our own community, we have our own resources and we can come up with creative ways of doing this ourselves.”
Goeke attended the June 30 through July 2 recognition ceremony in Denver, Colo., which also hosted strategy workshops and presentations. She says learning about the creative efforts of other communities was “very inspiring.”
As for the award, she says “it’s not so much that you get a cash reward, but you get help from experts nationwide.”
“As a pacesetter, we still have access to some of those resources,” she adds.
In recent years, the number of county youth living below the federal poverty line in the country has risen—and with that spike comes significant schooling challenges.
“I was shocked in Denver,” Goeke says, recalling the information she learned about reading levels in other communities. “In Santa Cruz County, some of our districts were quite low [in their grade-level reading proficiency]. One of our districts [the Pajaro Valley Unified School District] was only at 28 percent.”
The initial upset of such statistics aside, reading between the lines provides some encouragement. Freedom Elementary in PVUSD has more than doubled their grade-level reading since 2007, which was then at 12 percent.
“If you do invest really deeply, it pays off,” Goeke says. “First 5 funded this really in-depth program for childcare providers in teaching early literacy, and both the students and the teachers showed remarkable improvement.”
The funds for the early literacy program, called SEEDS, came from the Prop. 10 tobacco tax passed in 1998, according to Goeke.
The county has been collecting data and tracking progress in the three main categories since applying for the award, and will need to keep up in future years to be viable for the All-America award it missed out on this year.