Campaign for Grade-Level Reading conference comes to Philadelphia

The goal is to align systems and motivate families to stress early literacy. The city's program is a pioneer.

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

Rachel Honore is a foot soldier in Philadelphia’s campaign to get all children to read on grade level by the time they reach 4th grade.

She is a “family navigator” for Action for Early Learning, an initiative led by Drexel University that brings together social service agencies, schools, and community members in the 19104 zip code, which includes parts of West Philadelphia. It is one of the partners in Philadelphia’s Read by 4th campaign, a three-year-old effort to promote early literacy.

As a navigator, Honore, mother of a 6-year-old, mobilizes her neighbors to advocate for more governmental and private resources in literacy and to model reading for their children and keep books in their homes.

“We want a reading captain on every block,” she said.

Honore was a featured panelist at a national convening of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, where more than 700 educators, funders, and policymakers gathered at the Logan Hotel in Center City to reiterate the importance of early literacy and share strategies.

“The goal is to mobilize educators, public agencies, leaders of government, parents, funders, partners, and everyone to really focus on moving the literacy needle,” said Rhonda Lauer, the president and CEO of Foundations Inc., a New Jersey-based nonprofit that partners with organizations and school districts to enhance educational experiences. Foundations Inc. is one of the main organizers of the conference.

“The conversation and the discussions are: We know how to teach kids to read, we know what to do. The big question is, how do you do this at scale for all kids? No large urban area has been able to come up with that answer,” said Lauer, a former Philadelphia principal and administrator.

Philadelphia is aiming to be the first to find an answer through the Read by 4th campaign, which has 120 partners, said Janet Haas, board chair of the William Penn Foundation, a major campaign funder. Read by 4th is organized through the Free Library, which Haas said is the “backbone” of the initiative, with programs and outreach at its 54 locations.

In Philadelphia, 42 percent of 3rd graders read at grade level (District, charter and Catholic schools are included in that figure). In District schools alone, it is 35 percent, which is up 5 percent from the year before.

That is an improvement over the last several years, but still far from enough, said Jenny Bogoni, who is directing Read by 4th for the Free Library.

Bogoni reminded the group that Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America – 25.7 percent of the population is living below the federal poverty line, including 37 percent of the children.

In addition, she said, 40 percent of the adult population is considered “low literacy,” meaning that they “struggle to fill out a job application and read a prescription.”

That’s a major reason why a multi-generational, comprehensive approach is needed, she said, one that seeks to update a fragmented city bureaucracy while also employing people like Honore to literally knock on neighbors’ doors.

On the first full day of the conference, which runs through Friday, Philadelphia showcased its campaign. It mobilizes everyone from merchants to barbers to clergy members and, through its partners, it stresses the importance of school readiness, daily attendance, quality instruction, and out-of-school learning experiences.

The goal is nothing less than to overhaul systems and change behavior, Bogoni said, a point reiterated by other speakers, including Mayor Kenney.

“Everyone owns this,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president of the Urban Affairs Coalition, in a film dramatizing the effort that was shown at the conference. Matlock-Turner and Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children & Youth were the driving forces behind the launch of the Philadelphia campaign.

Superintendent William Hite has made reaching 100 percent literacy by grade 4 one of his “anchor goals” for improving achievement in the District. With foundation support, the District has revamped curriculum and instruction in kindergarten through grade 3 to support this objective. Over three summers, several thousand teachers were trained in best practices, and each classroom received “leveled libraries,” in which children could easily access color-coded books that matched their reading level.

Colleen Bowen, principal of Clara Barton Elementary School in Feltonville, said that the percentage of students reading at grade level in 4th grade is “completely unacceptable,” adding that the District’s early literacy push is aimed at creating “real and lasting cultural change.” Principals have been re-trained along with the teachers, she noted.

But changes in the School District are not enough. City Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis said the movers and shakers behind Read by 4th “kicked my butt to get me around this whole idea,” and now the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Departments of Human Services and Parks & Recreation, and others are focusing on the issue through collaboration, sustained funding, and deeper community attachments to focus holistically on the needs of families.

The conference will include panels and seminars on trauma-informed practices, because many children enter school suffering from trauma, a frequent side-effect of growing up in poverty.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is the brainchild of Ralph Smith, who started the work while he was executive vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Smith has also worked as Philadelphia School District chief of staff and as a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The campaign now encompasses more than 380 communities in 44 states, with 23 new sites joining just this week.

Speaker after speaker, including Gov. Wolf and Kenney, stressed that commitment is the key. Focusing on early literacy makes both “moral and practical” sense, said Kenney, who has made expanding high-quality preschool a hallmark of his administration.

Children who get a good education have a better chance of avoiding incarceration, getting a good job, and paying taxes, he said. Plus, improving the education system will keep young millennial families in the city when their children reach school age instead of having them leave and then return as empty-nesters “to buy tax-abated condos.”

“We are bringing literacy to life in laundromats, grocery stores, barbershops, homeless shelters, and other places in our community,” Kenney said. “…We are moving full speed ahead to give our students opportunity in life they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Honore, whose son Jonathan is thriving at Locke Elementary School, came to the work simply. Several years ago, as the parent of a toddler, she said, “I was trying to navigate organizations and programs that would assist my child’s literacy growth and development. I realized that within my area, they were far and few between.”

A graduate of Bodine High School with a business degree from Peirce College, she hooked up with Action for Early Learning, part of the federal Mantua Promise Neighborhood initiative and one of the partners in Read by 4th. There, she speaks with other parents “so they may make informed decisions about their child’s education and [be reminded] how important it is to be consistent.” For parents to know they have a voice “is huge,” she said.

“We want a child going to Grandma’s house to pick up a book like they pick up a cell phone,” she said. “We want the culture and the family dynamic changed.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the percentage of children reading on grade level in District schools is 35 percent.