Advocates hitch Philly schools to national literacy push

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    (Photo via ShutterStock)

    Is it possible for all the city’s third graders to read on grade level by the year 2020?

    That’s the goal of the new initiative led by Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Urban Affairs Coalition.

    Over the next six months, at the direction of PCCY and UAC, city agencies and community groups will create a multi-year strategy to improve early childhood literacy as part of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

    Advocates point to research that says that 74 percent of students who fail to read proficiently by the end of third grade falter in later grades. They also often drop out before finishing high school.

    Currently in Philadelphia, only 10 of the 167 public elementary schools (both district-run and charter) have 75 percent or more of their students reading on grade level or better. Two dozen schools have just 25 percent of their students meeting this third-grade benchmark.

    “Improving academic performance and graduation rates in our schools starts with the basics,”  Dr. William R. Hite, district superintendent, said at a recent news conference touting the intiative.  “This campaign is exactly what we need to get our children to read at grade level by the end of the third grade and lay the foundation needed for success throughout their academic career.”

    Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter added that low literacy rates contribute to “poverty, crime and loss of life opportunities.”

    The planning phase of the project is being funded by a $71,000 grant by the Barra Foundation. In addition to attracting new funding, organizers hope to determine the most effective methods for using existing dollars.

    But just how realistic is the initiative’s goal for 2020?

    “It shouldn’t be that hard. Countries have made their entire adult populations literate is a shorter period of time. So, yes, we can do it,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY. “The question is whether we can do it in a way that we don’t have to do it again.  You want to eliminate the need for a citywide effort to deal with reading gap issues.”

    The Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsors the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which is already in more than 140 communities in close to 40 states.

    The strategy will focus on four specific policies that advocates hope will raise the share of students reaching proficiency:

    Ensuring more high quality early learning programs
    Reducing school absenteeism
    Increasing summer reading efforts
    Aligning instructional practices from pre-K to third grade.

    “The fact is too many children are not ready when they show up for kindergarten; they miss too many days of school and they lose too much ground over the summer,” said Ralph Smith, managing director of the nationwide campaign and Senior Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  “It’s time to stop blaming the schools and to organize the entire community so that we ensure children are ready for school, show up every day and are engaged in meaningful activity over the summer.”

    Budget cuts in recent years have left the Philadelphia school district’s more than 131,000 students with just 16 certified librarians.

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