With future graduation rates, crime, and children’s very happiness in life at stake, the Mayor of Oakland, its Superintendent of Schools, and 100 community organizations launched an initiative Monday to help all Oakland children learn to read by the third grade.
Third grade reading ability is apparently a key indicator of a child’s later academic success and likelihood of graduating from high school, educational experts say. Indeed, not only do third grade reading scores correlate with later high school graduation rates, but also with how many of those former third-graders end up involved in the juvenile justice system, according to education experts from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and elsewhere. The California Department of Corrections uses statewide third grade reading data to plan future prison space.
“This is a public safety ordinance, frankly,” said Mayor Jean Quan when signing the City’s commitment to the Oakland Reads pledge, citing the link between a child not being able to read in third grade to his or her later trouble with the law.
Oakland Reads 2020 aims to double the percentage of third graders in Oakland who can read from the current 42 percent who read at grade level competence by the end of the decade.
Superintendent of Schools Tony Smith said the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has been focused on improving reading proficiency at all levels, but particularly in the early grades. That is because, by the third grade, if a child hasn’t learned to read, he or she will not be able to do the coursework for the fourth grade and beyond, as they require reading to learn.
A young child’s success at learning to read is influenced by many things in addition to classroom instruction. In particular, chronic absence from school has hindered some children in Oakland from learning to read. OUSD found that nearly 20 percent of its students in kindergarten, first and second grade are chronically absent. “If little ones in kindergarten, first and second grade are missing school, it is not on them,” but rather with their parents that the responsibility lies, Smith said.
Family literacy is another. If a parent cannot read, or cannot read English, that parent cannot very easily help his or her child learn to read. Even health and nutrition play a role; an unhealthy or underfed child is not ready to focus on learning.
The district has engaged nearly 100 organizations to help it with volunteers in the classrooms, summer initiatives, truancy, providing books, and storytelling in libraries. A partner in the effort is the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading launched in 2010 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Ralph Smith, head of the Campaign and senior vice president of the Foundation, said third grade is crucial because the purpose of reading switches at that point in the standard K-12 educational career.
“By the time they reach fourth grade, it is not about learning to read, but about reading to learn,” Smith said. So if kids cannot read by then, they quickly fall behind on their studies in a range of coursework. His organization found that, among children from low income families, 80 percent miss that third grade reading milestone, which propels the trajectory of low-income students dropping out of high school and experiencing more unemployment than others.
Oakland Reads 2020 calls on community organizations to work on four strategies:
• Family engagement
• School attendance
• Summer learning
• School readiness
A handful of organizations have donated $700,000 to the effort, though neither the City nor the school district have budgeted money to it. Funders include the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the Rogers Family Foundation, and the East Bay Community Foundation.
Oakland’s problems with third grade literacy are not unique. Nationally, there has been a new recognition of the importance of early education, from President Obama’s recent preschool initiative to states beginning transition kindergarten programs.
Smith, of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, said his organization finds that three areas of assistance are needed.
“There are three groups of kids who need your focus,” he said. “One, those who start out kindergarten so far behind, it is impossible to catch up.” These are children who have not been read to as babies and toddlers and who did not have learning experiences such as preschool.
“Second are children who’ve missed so many school days that it’s not possible to catch up. Third are those kids not sufficiently engaged in summer activities so by September they have lost ground.”
The 100 local organizations include government entities like the Oakland Public Library and Oakland Parks and Recreation Department, as well as large organizations like the California Endowment, and small arts and educational organizations like Poetry Inside Out and Community Alliance for Learning.