Local campaign launched to have all students reading proficiently by 3rd grade

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A newly formed coalition in Philadelphia is joining the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, an effort to make sure that as of the year 2020, all city students read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

"Reading proficiency by 3rd grade is the most important predictor of middle school and high school success," said Mayor Nutter at a Friday morning press conference that included Superintendent William Hite and Ralph Smith, the national campaign’s managing director. Nutter said that low literacy rates contribute to "poverty, crime and loss of life opportunities." He noted that city agencies such as the recreation department and community-based organizations must be part of the effort.

"There has to be more support for summer reading, universal pre-K, Head Start," the mayor said.

Hite added that "we have to start thinking about this work when a child is born."

Smith, a vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a former School District chief of staff, said that getting all children to read by 3rd grade is a "corrosive challenge." Students that don’t reach that benchmark "are not likely to graduate from high school, especially those from low-income families. We can and must do better. … A country that will not teach its kids to read is undeserving of leadership in the world."

Philadelphia’s coalition to devise and implement a strategy for the initiative appears to have attracted nearly every player in early education and child welfare in the city. A group of 75 people met in a planning session before the press conference. The Barra Foundation has donated $87,000 to plan the six-year campaign. The planning will take six months.

"We have to align our work, revise our practices, and create new ways of working together," said Leslie Winder, the chair of the board of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY).

Donna Cooper, PCCY’s executive director, and Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, are spearheading the effort.

Cooper described five major challenges that must be addressed: high absenteeism; students entering school with poor vocabularies and little or no pre-K exposure; summer reading loss, especially among students who live in poverty; parents lacking the tools they need to help their children with reading and vocabulary development; and failure of schools to use effective instructional techniques for students who have many different needs and learning styles.

Among the attendees was Deborah Grill, a retired school librarian, who noted that just 16 certified librarians remain in District-run schools, the victims of budget cuts as most schools shut their libraries. Children need to be able to choose books that they can read for pleasure, and a shuttered library sends exactly the wrong message, she noted.

She also lamented the loss of the Reading Recovery program, which had some success with 1st through 3rd graders. It was discontinued due to expense; it required virtually one-on-one tutoring and specialized intervention.

"That’s what it will take," Grill said. "You can’t do this on the cheap."

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is already in some 140 communities in 39 states or U.S. territories, Smith said.

"Conditions of poverty, incarceration, health care, all of those are inextricably linked to illiteracy," said Hite. "If we can direct all our attention to ensure every single 8-year-old is on grade level reading, we’ve gone a long way to correct some of the ills facing this city and all other cities in the country."